Former Prosecutor Spearheads New Survivor-Led Justice Project

Jane Manning, former sex crimes prosecutor and current survivor advocate, considers herself a person who doesn’t back down when it comes to seeking criminal justice accountability for sexual assault. “There aren’t a lot of us doing this kind of work in the nonprofit zone,” she said.

The Women’s Equal Justice Project is growing its impact on gender-based violence. (Image credit: Women’s Equal Justice Project)

Manning has spent much of her life prosecuting sex crimes, domestic violence, and child abuse. As a survivor advocate, she has also immersed herself in the complex social issues involved in the fight to end violence against women. Now, as Director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project, Manning helps sexual assault survivors push back on a criminal justice system that is all too willing to dismiss their rights. 

Women’s Equal Justice Project, which Manning started six years ago as a fiscally sponsored project of the National Organization for Women, has now branched off into its own nonprofit. 

“The work that we’re doing – it’s grievously underrepresented and underresourced,” said Manning. Even after a lifetime career in criminal justice for sexual and domestic assault crimes, Manning says there are still “shockingly few resources out there for survivors.”

Prompted by Survivors to Start a Survivor-Driven Organization

Manning cites her number one reason for starting the Women’s Equal Justice Project as the survivors themselves, who have reached out to her looking for help navigating the legal system. She started as a volunteer in survivor advocacy, and recalls the first year of their work, when two different women had contacted the organization in the span of a couple months, reporting that they had been drugged and raped. One case was in New York City, the other in San Fransisco, yet, says Manning, “in both places there was this incredibly backward response to sexual assault from police and prosecutors.”

The overall message that these women were getting from the police departments was that the crime against them was not seen as a high priority. “These two young women brought such a passion to their fight for justice,” says Manning. “Both of them saw their perpetrators as a clear and present danger to other women, and they wanted justice system to take action.”

“If you talk to survivors, it’s impossible not to absorb the sense of urgency that survivors have about bringing rapists to justice,” says Manning. It’s that same sense of urgency that Manning strives to bring to her work every day. 

I asked Manning what she saw as possible for survivor advocacy with the administration of Biden/Harris occupying the White House. As Vice President, would Kamala Harris be able to follow through on her Presidential promise to spend $1 Billion testing rape kits?

Testing Rape Kits: An Essential Beginning

“Testing the rape kits is just the beginning. It’s an essential beginning,” said Manning. “There’s much more we need to do to build a justice system that is responsive to survivors and holds perpetrators accountable.

What does Manning see as the necessary steps to build a more survivor-centric criminal justice system? “We need well-trained police who can do victim-centered interviews and skillful, thorough investigations.”

Manning stresses that we also need prosecutors who can assess the real merits of a rape case and not just look for cases that are easy wins at trial. “We also need increased awareness in our communities of how important it is to have prosecutors and police departments that take rape seriously.” Only then, says Manning, will we see an appropriate level of resources and training allocated to sexual assault units. 

Justice Mission Aligned with On-the-Ground Services 

Manning described the mission of the Women’s Equal Justice Project as having two parts: providing direct services to survivors as they navigate the criminal justice system, and working toward systems reform that will better serve survivors now and in the future. “We will go with survivors to meet with investigators and prosecutors,” says Manning. “We will get on the phone and conference with police and prosecutors to make sure that they are aware of best practices and cutting edge techniques for investigating and prosecuting rape.” 

Where necessary, says Manning, she and her team will push police and prosecutors to do better. 

“Survivors are of every race and economic background,” says Manning. “Women in every walk of life discover that when they come forward to report a rape, the criminal justice response is not what it should be.”

The common threads of this toxic institutional response: victim blaming, lack of awareness about the trauma experience of sexual assault and domestic violence, and gender bias against women as legitimate plaintiffs in rape cases.

In order to make justice systems better for all survivors, Manning says the Women’s Equal Justice Project takes a number of approaches. “Sometimes that means mobilizing local coalitions to work together to push for reform,” she says, citing partnerships in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans where the organization worked with local advocates and survivors to push for systems improvements. 

“Our two missions are deeply interdependent,” says Manning. “The system reform relies on our frontline understanding of what’s still going wrong in the justice system.”

At the same time, the clients get to experience the system reform piece, which is often a crucial component of their healing process. “Our clients really need the system reform piece. Survivors often come to feel that the system itself is in desperate need of reform.” To participate in that reform is both empowering and restorative. 

“You have been a light in a dark place.”

Manning offered some feedback from clients as the final part of our discussion, returning to how the work aligns most holistically for her — in the words of the survivors. 

One survivor helped by the Women’s Equal Justice Project spoke of how the involvement of the organization in her case “has literally been a lifesaver.” Others spoke of how the support they received gave them a stronger sense of confidence in their own ability to protect themselves and live a more successful life. Another recipient of services put it this way: “Thank you. I finally have a real detective on my case and he’s finally doing a real investigation.”

“I am so grateful to the survivors who are continuing to fight for criminal accountability for the worst sexual predators,” says Manning. 

With Women’s Equal Justice Project, Manning and her colleagues are fighting for each survivor, filled with a shared sense of purpose that is driven by each survivor’s “determination to do everything humanly possible to stop their attacker before he changes another life irrevocably.”

“We are a resource in that fight,” she says.

Editor’s Note: You can donate to the Women’s Equal Justice Project here.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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