“Survivors are rarely centered in discussions about American criminal justice and violence prevention. We should be.”
By Aswad Thomas
In reaction to increased violence in some American cities this summer, we’re witnessing the old familiar responses. As Chicago experienced record murders, President Donald Trump announced he would send in federal forces while the city’s police department sought to flood neighborhoods with cops. But these policing-focused efforts will not stop the cycle of violence so that everyone is safe. No one understands this better than the people who live in the communities that actually face the violence ― including those, like me, who have been victims.
When I was 6 years old, I dreamed of becoming a professional basketball player. And in 2009, I was well on my way. I had just become the first man in my family to graduate from college and I was offered a contract to play in Europe. Then, just days before flying overseas to live my dream, I was leaving a convenience store near my home in Hartford, Connecticut, when I was shot in the back twice by strangers conducting a botched robbery. As the blood pooled out of me, I wondered if I could still play basketball, or if I would live at all. Those bullets ended my basketball career and changed my life forever.
My lungs and legs were damaged, and all my attention went to relearning how to walk. I no longer felt safe in my own neighborhood. I experienced flashbacks and depression and was constantly on edge. I needed professional help to deal with the trauma and shock, but none was offered to me. Though my family did all they could, the access to services just wasn’t there.
Meanwhile, my sense of what justice means was transformed. While I initially wanted retribution, my feelings changed when I learned that the young man who shot me had also been a victim of gun violence, causing him to lose sight in one eye when he was just a teenager. He didn’t receive any help for the trauma he went through either, and I realized that his unaddressed trauma had contributed to my own victimization.
I knew I didn’t want to add to the cycle of violence and incarceration that already plagues cities like mine; I wanted healing and rehabilitation. Most of all, I wanted to bring safety to my community and to prevent such violence from ever happening again.
This is a view shared by the majority of U.S. crime victims. A 2016 survey by the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that nearly two out of every three crime victims want shorter prison sentences, not longer ones. They also want more investment in prevention and rehabilitation. For many, their views come from knowing firsthand that people who have been hurt often end up hurting others.
If this perspective comes as a surprise, it’s because survivors, especially those of us from the communities most harmed by violence, are rarely centered in discussions about American criminal justice and violence prevention. We should be, though.
Crime survivors want a different approach. A national conversation is looking at how we can make more effective investments in public safety. Yet even now, our country remains addicted to traditional criminal justice responses. This remains true even though we spend $200 billion every year on policing and incarceration, put more people in prison than any other nation in the world, and still have many communities experiencing stunningly high rates of violence.
Over-spending on the criminal justice system isn’t curbing the problem. In fact, most crimes in the U.S. never get solved or even reported, and most crime survivors never receive the services they need to feel safe. While young people of color are the most likely to experience a violent crime, they’re also the least likely to get help. Just 10% of violent crime survivors receive any support from a victim services agency.
It’s time for public officials to start listening to the survivors, families and communities who experience violence and trauma firsthand. They are calling for investments in trauma recovery, violence intervention and other community-based safety programs as fundamental strategies to curb violence.
We know this approach works. A John Jay College of Criminal Justice study found that a Cure Violence program in the South Bronx was associated with a 63% reduction in shooting victimizations compared to a similar neighborhood without the program. A National Alliance of Trauma Recovery Centers report found that victims of violent crime who get help through 35 innovative trauma recovery centers across the country show remarkable results: 93% of patients say they feel better emotionally after treatment and nearly 60% are more likely to return to work. With benefits like these, lawmakers should increase investments in trauma recovery centers and violence prevention programs in every state.
Congress should provide critical funding for these essential safety initiatives. It’s urgent that we expand these efforts as the need for them increases amid the stress, trauma and widespread unemployment of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hurt people hurt people, as survivors know. That’s why it’s imperative that lawmakers and other public officials stop wasting our resources on policies and practices that don’t work. We need solutions that prevent violence and help victims recover.
After I was shot just over a decade ago, I thought my life was over. For eight months, I was too scared to leave my house. For over a year, I was too overwhelmed and traumatized to even think about looking for a job. Finally, I found purpose in helping other survivors. If policymakers listened to us more and spent less taxpayer money on systems that perpetuate trauma, we might finally move past America’s tragic cycles of violence.