By Lily Dayton
Aswad Thomas made a quick stop at a convenience store to buy a bottle of pink lemonade on a hot summer night in 2009. He had recently graduated from college—the first in his family to attend a university—and he’d been recruited to play professional basketball overseas.
“I felt like I was at an all-time high,” says Thomas.
He was leaving the market when two men approached him in the parking lot. One pointed a gun at Thomas; the other pointed two at him. They shot him twice in the back. The store clerk called 911. While Thomas lay face-down on the concrete, the two men ran. At the hospital, he was told he might never walk again.
Thomas didn’t know either of the men. The crime could have happened to anyone, but it was more likely to happen to Thomas because he was low-income, young, male and African American.
Nationally, African Americans and Latinos are more likely than Whites to experience violent crimes. African Americans are victims of violent crimes at a rate of 10 per 100,000. The rate for Latinos is 8.3 per 100,000, and for Whites, 7.7 per 100,000, according to a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
A survey by Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), a non-profit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, reveals the extent of such disparities in the state. Though one in five Californians has been a victim of crime, the rate of crime victimization, the survey found, is not spread evenly throughout the state’s population.
“What we found out was not what most people think,” says Lenore Anderson, executive director of CSJ.
Media reports about crime, for instance, tend to focus on white people as victims and people of color as perpetrators, according to research conducted over several decades.
Yet the California Crime Victims Survey found that victims of violent crime are more likely to be low-income, under 30 and Latino or African American.
Results showed the strongest predictor of victimization is having previously been a victim of crime, a finding consistent with national data. Two in three crime victims in California have been victims of multiple crimes in the past five years. The majority of these repeat victims are young men of color.
The survey also found that repeat crime victims are rarely able to access even basic services and support for recovery. Two out of three survivors reported anxiety, stress, difficulty sleeping and other symptoms resulting from the traumatic effects of their victimization, but few reported receiving treatment. Most were unaware of the full spectrum of victim services that are available, a finding that holds true nationally, too.
Thomas was fortunate in his eventual emotional recovery. He moved to California and became the national organizer for CSJ, mobilizing young men as part of a crime survivors program. Not all victims are so relatively lucky. In fact, many victims of violence go on to commit crimes themselves.
A recent study of youth in the juvenile justice system in Ohio and New Hampshire, for instance, found that 94 percent had experienced at least one traumatic event before detention. On average, youth in the study had a history of five or more traumatic events in their lives and were eight times more likely to screen positive for PTSD than those who’d experienced one trauma.
“People who have a history of violence often also have a history of trauma,” says Alicia Boccellari, director of the Trauma Recovery Center at UC San Francisco and San Francisco General Hospital. “It’s all the same people in some ways.”
No help in healing from trauma
After several weeks in the hospital, Thomas was discharged. He was walking, but he would never play professional basketball. He still suffered from pain and was on constant alert: his heart raced whenever he left his home and he jumped each time he heard brakes screeching or a car engine backfiring.
“There was nowhere to get help, nowhere to get counseling or physical therapy,” says Thomas. “I began to feel helpless.”
Like most crime victims, Thomas was unaware of the Victims Compensation Fund, which helps survivors with expenses such as mental health treatment, medical bills and lost wages.
Those who do apply for services face long wait times for services, a complicated application process and a requirement that victims file a police report to be eligible for assistance. Victims who are on probation or parole are ineligible for compensation.
“The reality is that in the era of mass incarceration, low-income communities of color have been hardest hit,” says Anderson. “In some communities, most males of color have been incarcerated. So if we exclude people with convictions, we are excluding people of color.”
Centers for recovery – do they work?
The services so few victims are aware of can make all the difference, says Alicia Boccellari of the Trauma Recovery Center. Launched in 1997, the program was the first trauma recovery center in the nation.
Boccellari had been working as a psychologist at the hospital amidst an influx of trauma patients who’d been victims of violent crimes. “We could help them heal from the immediate physical injuries,” Boccellari says, “but when they came back a month later their lives had fallen apart because of psychological trauma.”
She followed a group of 50 violent crime victims who were treated then released with referrals to mental health professionals in the community. Not one made it into mental health treatment—even though six months later many had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both national and state data show that those most likely to be victimized have been virtually absent from the group of victims who receive compensation.
Boccellari also found they needed more than mental health treatment. “Someone can’t deal with trauma they’ve experienced if they don’t have money to put food on the table.”
So case managers at the Trauma Recovery Center met victims at their bedsides to help with finances, housing and transportation as they filed police reports and filled out paperwork. They went on home visits after a victim was released. Recovery included learning coping skills such as regulating their emotions with mindfulness meditation.
So far, the program seems to be working. In a large, randomized study, 72 percent of victims assigned to Trauma Recovery Center care engaged in mental health services, versus only 38 percent of patients assigned to usual care; 77 percent of Trauma Recovery Center patients filed applications for victim compensation, versus only 28 percent of those in usual care. More than 90 percent of victims in the program said the treatment helped them feel better emotionally.
Their success attracted the attention of CSJ, and the organization partnered with state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) in 2013 to create legislation that allocated $2 million of surplus victim compensation funds to a state grant program that would allow new trauma recovery centers to replicate the model. In 2014, the grant program became a permanent, annual expenditure in California’s state budget. There are currently six centers throughout the state.
These trauma recovery centers not only help victims heal, they also contribute to safer communities, says Boccellari. She explains that people with untreated trauma are more likely to engage in unsafe relationships, use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism and abuse other people.
The victim perspective
The CJS survivor survey showed that seven in 10 crime victims want resources to go to crime prevention and services such as mental health and substance abuse treatment – not prison time.
Most victims in California also believe that prisons, which lack sufficient programs for rehabilitation, simply make people better at committing crimes.
Thomas eventually learned that both men who’d assaulted him had been in and out of prison several times. One of them had been a victim of gun violence. “If those two individuals had received the help they needed, I don’t think I ever would have been a victim of gun violence, and I might be playing basketball today.”
According to the CSJ survey, most California crime victims have an opinion about criminal justice that is very different from the tough-on-crime perspective promoted by prominent victims’ groups such Crime Victims United of California.
CCVU has advocated for legislative changes such as California’s three strikes law, which imposed a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life on repeat offenders with a previous felony conviction.
In recent years, however, prison overcrowding and fiscal concerns have led the state in a less punitive direction and California has dramatically reduced the number of people behind bars. A vast majority of victims polled by CSJ said more resources should go to probation, rehabilitation, education and health programs.
“For decades, we’ve taken money from communities and invested it in the criminal justice system,” Thomas says. “It’s time we take money from the criminal justice system and invest it in our communities.”