In 2009, Detroit native Aswad Thomas, a former NCAA Division III college basketball standout, was just three weeks away from playing professionally in Europe when gun violence derailed his career and nearly killed him.
“I was shot twice in my back,” he told Yahoo News. “That incident changed my life.”
Thomas recalled learning from doctors and therapists of the physical challenges he would endure after suffering collapsed lungs and a dislocated shoulder, but said he was never told of the psychological challenges he might face. He and four other men in his immediate family have experienced gun violence and, he said, “none of us ever received any support or services after those incidents.”
While recovering, Thomas learned of other crime victims who rarely got the resources for emotional, physical or financial recovery, including the 18-year-old gunman who shot him. Four years prior, Thomas’s shooter had been a victim of gun violence himself.
“I strongly believe that if we invested in safety that includes the well-being and healing, then that young man who was shot at 14 would have got support and services to help him heal, and that would have prevented my shooting years later,” Thomas said.
In an effort to create the system of support he and others never had, Thomas pivoted to a career where he could help other crime victims heal by joining Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), a multistate public policy organization that promotes legislation on behalf of crime victims. The organization advocates for trauma centers in communities, less complicated probation laws and rehabilitation such as life skills programs and employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated.
Since its founding in 2016, ASJ has won more than 50 campaigns tied directly to support for crime victims, including key wins in Republican-majority states that have been historically resistant to criminal justice reform.
For instance, last month in Michigan, GOP lawmakers passed the Safer Michigan Act, which allows for financially needy victims of crime to obtain compensation. The law increases the maximum award for victims to $45,000, up from the previous $500 cap.
“It is challenging for victims to get the support that they deserve,” state Rep. Bronna Kahle, the bill’s Republican sponsor, told Bridge Michigan, a nonprofit news outlet in the state. “The support they need is already there for them but there’s just a ton of red tape right now that they have to get through to access it.”
In April 2021, crime victims in Florida urged GOP Attorney General Ashley Moody to fund the state’s first trauma recovery center, which provided free counseling and support to young survivors of violent attacks.
“It is heartbreaking any time a child is victimized by criminal behavior, especially if no one is there to help them along the road to recovery,” Moody said in a press release. “As a former judge, I have seen young people with promising futures victimized over and over again and, in some incidences, turn to crime themselves.”
These successes are a big reason why the CEO of ASJ, Jay Jordan, who spent eight years in prison for a robbery he committed in his teens, grimaces at the mention of criminal justice reform, instead calling it public safety — an important distinction that he says has garnered bipartisan support through the years.
“People often say, ‘Let's get tough on crime,’” Jordan told Yahoo News. “We say, ‘Let's get tough on safety.’ … We don’t see [states] as Republican or Democratic states. We see them as states where people live where people want to be safe.”
Although it remains far below its level from the 1970s to the 1990s, crime has recently been on the rise across the country. FBI data shows that the U.S. experienced its largest-ever recorded annual increase in homicides in 2020 compared with 2019. The homicide rate rose nearly 30% that year and increased again by 5% in 2021. There are 70 million Americans with a criminal record — equivalent to the populations of New York, Texas and California combined.
The main providers of mental health care in the U.S. are prisons, which has even Republican state legislators considering jail diversion programs, which would help many dealing with mental health issues avoid jail and get the help they desperately need. For example, in Michigan, where one out of every four prisoners has mental health issues, it costs $95,000 a year to house an incarcerated person with mental illness, compared with $35,000 for those without mental illness, according to the Detroit News. State Sens. Rick Outman, a Republican, and Stephanie Chang, a Democrat, late last year introduced a bill, which soon passed into law, to broaden statewide crisis response programs to reduce harm in emergency situations involving the mentally ill.
“We need to look at earlier intervention for those that suffer some type of mental illness,” former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, a Republican, told the News. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s not only a public safety issue for people around this state, but it’s also a cost savings if you look at it going forward.”
At the urging of crime victims, other Republican-governed states have recently passed several criminal justice reforms.
In Ohio, India Brown, whose partner was murdered, was initially blocked from accessing victims’ compensation funds because of a previous teenage felony. Brown persuaded Gov. Mike DeWine and Attorney General Dave Yost, two Republicans, to fund trauma recovery centers and remove barriers to victims’ compensation. This would ensure that families have emotional support and financial stability.
“I wrestled with unspeakable grief,” Brown wrote in an op-ed for the Columbus Dispatch.
And in Texas last summer, veteran Melvin Halsey, along with other crime victims, helped advocate for reform of the state’s probation system. Tens of thousands of Texans will no longer be sent back to prison for technical violations as a result.
“Black people make up 13% of the population in Texas, but we’re 33% of the state’s incarcerated population,” Halsey wrote in an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman last year. “A system that focuses on helping people rehabilitate ourselves rather than doling out harsh punishments is not only the right thing to do, it makes communities safer and saves Texas money too.”
It’s because of these wins that Thomas and Jordan have some optimism for the future of crime victim support in both Republican- and Democratic-led states.
“Being able to get support and healing is not a political issue,” Jordan said. “So whether it’s a Republican state or a Democratic state or purple state, these public safety reforms are common sense.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images