Opinion | I’m a shooting victim, and I know harsh prison sentences don’t work

Aswad Thomas grew up in Highland Park and is the membership director for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a national network of crime survivors.

At age 10, I lost my best friend in a senseless drive-by shooting in Highland Park, where we both grew up. Afterward, I had no access to grief or trauma counselors in the community or at my school to help me cope and heal after Reubin’s death.

Years later, I lacked support again, when I was shot twice while away at college. I had recently graduated and signed to play basketball professionally in Europe. Those bullets ended my basketball career. I suffered from depression, paranoia, PTSD, and had no place to turn for therapy or emotional recovery. I was angry and prepared to testify against the young man arrested in my shooting, who faced sentencing of 40 years in prison.

At the hospital, the doctor treating my injuries told me the story of a 14-year-old he’d treated three years prior. I realized he was describing one of the two young men involved in my shooting, the one who escaped arrest. Something clicked. This is how the cycle of violence and unaddressed trauma results in further victimization.

Too many crime survivors never receive the care and support they need. In order to achieve true safety in our communities, our voices — the voices of crime survivors— must be heard.

All too often, those most affected by crime are left out of the conversation on public safety, but listening to survivors reveals profound insights. A recent statewide survey of Michigan crime survivors found that, contrary to popular narratives of crime survivors as hungry for retribution, survivors overwhelmingly prefer investments in prevention over incarceration. Survivors recognize locking people up for long sentences isn’t making us safer.

In fact, the Alliance for Safety and Justice survey revealed that more than six out of 10 victims (64 percent) support shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation programs over sentences that keep people in prison for as long as possible.

Improving access to trauma recovery will help stop the cycle of crime. Research shows that eight in 10 victims experience at least one symptom of trauma, which contributes to a wide range of problems including addiction, housing instability and mental health issues. As a result, crime survivors are at higher risk for repeat victimization and behaviors that lead to crime itself.

Ultimately stopping the cycle of crime means stopping the cycle of trauma in our communities. To do that, we must conduct regular victimization studies in Michigan, increase investments in evidence-based services and expand Michigan’s trauma recovery center network, target victims’ services funding for the communities that have been most harmed by crime, and advance sentencing and corrections policies that place more emphasis on investments in new safety priorities that improve community health.

Michigan received $56 million in Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding from the federal government in 2017. In the fiscal year 2018, the state is expected to receive $100 million in Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding. A portion of these dollars should be targeted to community organizations that provide services to vulnerable populations and communities experiencing concentrated crime and violence.

It is time for policymakers to listen to crime survivors and advance sentencing and corrections policies that more closely align with crime victims’ needs and place more emphasis on investments in new safety priorities that improve community health.

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Linda Looney
Thu, 08/16/2018 - 11:38am

It’s time for policy makers to LISTEN! I agree that preventative and survivor services could well prevent further crimes. The “for profit” prison network is not at all helpful either. Rehabilitation of both perpetrators and victims should be the goal!

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 12:31pm

It is time for those that claim to have the new found answer to include accountability in their proposals, in the programs, and in the spending. One thing to be said about the 'for profit' prisons, the state can fire them when they fail to meet the expectations of the contract. When was the last time a government program was fire/ended when it didn't solve a problem, deliver a service?

The real prevention occurs prior to someone choosing to be violent, for the first time. Why not invest in getting kids to want to learn, to have fun learning and helping others, to be responsible for themselves/their choices/their actions by them experiencing the impact of their choices?

Thu, 08/16/2018 - 6:48pm

Sorry but the connection of how being a shooting victim and that somehow gives you special knowledge of whether harsh sentences are effective or not is never made. If someone is a victim of terrorism do their opinion on foreign affairs necessarily carry any special validity? Nor do you offer any evidence as to the effectiveness of your other proposals. This is the type of opinion piece that is disappointing with Bridge's content.