Michele Voigt and Jennifer Lawlor (Contributed photo)

Jennifer Lawlor lost her 28-year-old daughter, Emily Todd, in 2018 to a violent murder. Michele Voigt lost her aunt in 2017 to a gun suicide.

The women who have both been advocating for a reduction in gun violence have formed an advocacy group, Violent Crime Survivors, to lobby legislators to consider victims’ rights and victims’ trauma when they craft criminal justice reforms.

“We were told that crime victims have a seat at the table,” Voigt said.“But being able to testify at a public hearing is not a seat at the table. Crime victims need to be involved before the bills are crafted.”

For now the group has been texting and tweeting legislators to get their points across since the Capitol complex is closed due to the pandemic. But their goal is to encourage more members to lobby and to provide resources for victims including legal help and counseling.

“I know where the gaps are, I know what people need, I know what everything needs,” Lawlor said. “It’s the same thing. We don’t want to replace victim advocates, but we’d like to add to what they do and work together.”

The pair say they do not necessarily oppose criminal justice reform. But they have a perspective on what laws would impact crime victims.

“People need to feel like they matter, especially in the areas where crime and violence are a chronic issue,” Lawlor said. “In general, we’re against reforms that involve a situation where a person has been harmed in a violent nature.”

Lawlor supports the PROTECT Act, which would limit solitary confinement in the state’s prisons, and SB 972, which makes phone calls to inmates free.

But she and Voigt put pressure on lawmakers earlier this week when the Judiciary Committee moved to send a bill to the Senate that would have allowed inmates under the age of 25 who were serving long sentences for violent crimes to be eligible for parole without completing their sentences.

They had a minor victory when the final version of SB 978 passed out of committee with a lower age range. The legislation was changed to address those convicted of serious crimes committed when they were under the age of 21, and who have served 12 or 30 years depending on the length of their sentences.

“Michele and I lobbied like hell, my family lobbied like hell, to get people to understand,” Lawlor said.

They are against the “Clean Slate” bill, which would erase the convictions of some people after a period of time depending on the offense and Lawlor wants money from the closure of Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s super maximum security prison, to go to inmate rehabilitation programs.

“We need to really enhance and go as far as we can with rehabilitation options for people we know are going to get released and support for the communities where they will be going,” Lawlor said. “What are we doing if we haven’t done those two things?”

Their advocacy is welcomed, said Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. “I think for anyone who has an issue that it’s smart to find other people who are like-minded so you can advocate,” Winfield said.

“I have commended Jennifer Lawlor publicly for her work. It’s a perspective that we’ll join with other perspectives we are wrestling with and at the end of the day, we’ll figure out the best course of action. I think it’s a positive thing that they have formed an organization.”

Voigt and Lawlor were both volunteering with Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group supporting common sense gun laws in the years prior to 2018 but they didn’t know each other well. A mutual friend introduced them about three weeks after Lawlor’s daughter was murdered. 

Voigt has supported Lawlor through her grief and through her efforts to speak up on behalf of victims at the legislative level.

Voigt came up with the idea to start the group after a particularly grueling day of testimony in mid-March, she said. “It was in response to the deluge of bills that impact victims of crime,” Voigt said.

It is often traumatizing for victims to continually tell their story in the hope that legislators will listen, she said. There are several advocacy groups that do a great job supporting victims but few actively lobby for or against legislation, Voigt said.

“There’s a huge hole and a gap and no one was doing it,” Voigt said. “A lot of survivors I know don’t even know what bills are coming up and how it would impact them.”

Voigt now sends out legislative updates to people who have joined the group as supporters and she is tracking several bills as they make their way to the House and Senate. “We’ve been texting senators and representatives as they are in caucus and regularly emailing members of the Judiciary Committee,” she said.

Their online petition asking legislators to include the input of crime victims when crafting laws garnered 1,875 signatures in about two weeks.

“Our goal is to be more well-rounded, not just to provide advocacy,” Voigt said. “There’s a huge population of crime survivors who fall through the cracks. People need resources for their own emotional security and they often need assistance navigating their own legal cases. We are hoping to expand to that. We’re on the ground right now trying to make an impact.”