Aswad Thomas is managing director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a flagship program of the Alliance for Safety and Justice. Credit - Courtesy of Alliance for Safety and Justice
Aswad Thomas’ dream of pursuing a career in basketball was disrupted about a decade ago when he was shot twice in the back during an attempted armed robbery in Connecticut. In the following years, Thomas—like many other victims of violent crime—didn’t know that Congress had set aside money and resources for his recovery decades ago.
Had Thomas known, the 37-year-old says he would have been better able to deal with the injury as well as his PTSD by tapping into counseling services, physical therapy and relocation support. “I was shot just blocks away from where I live so the fear of going outside was something I struggled with for years,” Thomas says. “I would have loved physical therapy to help me get back on my feet and see if I could continue my basketball career.”
Thomas was 26 when he was shot, just three months after he became a first-generation college graduate. The shooting put him in debt since he wasn’t able to work and didn’t have the financial stability to pay off his student loans on a monthly basis. “This has negatively affected my credit history and still continues to be a significant barrier for me and my family,” Thomas says.
Fewer than 1 in 3 crime survivors report receiving help—including financial, medical and mental health assistance—during their recovery, according to a new report from the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national organization that advocates for crime victims and improving public safety.
The study, released Wednesday, includes a broad survey conducted in June 2020 of public safety priorities for more than 4,000 Americans, including 752 crime victims and 511 people convicted of crimes. It notes that 1 in 5 Americans have been victims of a crime over the past decade—and Black Americans were nearly 25% more likely to have been victims of serious violent crime compared to white Americans in 2018.
For crime victims who received help, the majority said they received it from hospitals or family and friends, according to the study. Fewer relied on the criminal justice system; about 18% said they received help from police and 16% said they received help from prosecutors.
According to the study, federal reporting indicates millions of people reported being victims of crimes, but “only 243,000 people had victim compensation applications approved” in 2018 as part of the landmark 1984 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), created to provide financial and other forms of assistance to crime survivors.
A big issue is that not every crime victim knows that they have access to government support. “There is not widespread education that these resources exist and that is problematic,” says Fatimah Loren Dreier, executive director of The Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, a national organization that focuses on hospital-based violence intervention programs. “There is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for ensuring people are aware of and given access to these resources,” she says. It varies across states.
In order to receive money from victim compensation funds, individuals have to cooperate and interact with police, which in some cases can be a “challenge” and an “unnecessary barrier to receiving care,” Dreier says.
To be eligible for official compensation, survivors are typically required to report the crime to law enforcement; in some states, they must report the incident as quickly as 72 hours after it occurred to be considered for compensation.
“For the patients that we serve who have had really challenging, largely horrendous experiences with the criminal justice system, trust is very low,” Dreier says. If a police officer decides that a crime victim, who may be in a hospital—traumatized and sedated—is uncooperative, that could jeopardize an individual’s eligibility to seek compensation, she adds.
This ties into a larger debate about the expansive role of policing that has been scrutinized amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, which have included calls to rethink public safety by redirecting resources and power away from the police. In 2018, 40% of individuals who applied for victim compensation benefits after suffering harm as a direct result of a crime and self-reported their ethnicity were white; 26% were Hispanic/Latino and 25% were Black/African-American, according to the Office for Victims of Crime.
Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute and a clinical professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School, says that in addition to apprehension about dealing with law enforcement—often because of past bad experiences or being undocumented—language barriers, if English is not their first language, and trauma can also make it harder to access resources.
“We have to figure out a way to increase the ability for survivors to access what they need over the course of their entire lifetime,” Garvin says.
Garvin and her team of lawyers guide crime survivors through a maze of regulations to try and secure the support the government promised them. They receive VOCA dollars and train other lawyers to help crime victims navigate the system, but “right now it’s band aids, not a system of accessible lawyers,” says Garvin, who adds that ideally victims of violent crime would be provided with a lawyer at no cost.
Garvin says many of the current government resources for crime survivors “start from the premise of ‘here are the things we can give you'” instead of “what do you need.”
More than $407 million was paid out in victim compensation in 2018, according to the Office for Victims of Crime, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice. The highest proportion of money—35%—covered medical and dental expenses, followed by 15% for funeral/burial expenses. Many states that receive federal funding through VOCA, which provides supplementary funding for state victim compensation programs as well as money for victims services programs, do not spend it all, says Dreier. (She says her organization was part of a broad coalition that successfully advocated for $20 million in unused New Jersey VOCA funds to be allocated toward launching hospital-based violence intervention programs in nine cities.)
Dr. LaDonna Butler, now a mental health counselor and member of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a flagship program of Alliance for Safety and Justice, says she did not get what she needed after she was sexually assaulted in 1996. Butler says that she was able to access counseling support after her sexual assault, but that it was short-term and not comprehensive enough. “There was a significant disconnect between what I needed and what I received,” Butler says, adding that it “delayed (her) healing process.”
“For too long, the people most harmed by the criminal justice system, the people most harmed by violence, have been the least supported and have been excluded from conversations about safety and public safety,” Thomas says. He is now managing director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which organizes a national network of crime survivors, especially young men of color, to advocate for local, state and federal policies.
Crime survivors like Thomas and Butler say their vision of safety includes investing in programs that provide violence intervention and mental health support. “If it’s not making us all safer, then policymakers should not be funding it,” Butler says.
Most of those surveyed by the Alliance for Safety and Justice supported a shift away from prioritizing funds for prisons and jails. Instead, they support focusing on prevention, mental health and reentry to help the formerly incarcerated transition back into their communities—with about 80% supporting federal investments to increase the use of community-based violence prevention workers to prevent crime.
“Over-incarceration did not keep me safe. It did not get the person who assaulted me any support or treatment,” Butler says. “There was no rehabilitation inside of jail. It did not result in him coming out better. He came out worse.”
Thomas also advocates for law enforcement to proactively educate victims about the resources available to them. He says officers frequently visited him after he was shot, but never informed him of the funds that might have helped him when he needed them most. “Every time they visited it was always about the case,” he says. “Not one time did they ask me if I needed any support services, they never told me about the victim compensation program.”