Aswad Thomas was a standout basketball player at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts, an NCAA Division III school. But his dream of playing professionally overseas ended abruptly when he was shot in a convenience store in Hartford, Connecticut in the summer of 2009.
He says after he survived the incident, he didn’t receive any help. There was no access to therapy. No mention of a victims’ compensation program.
But instead of becoming bitter, he decided he didn’t want to become another statistic in Hartford. He completed his master’s at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work, and now is the Florida managing director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, part of a national movement trying to mobilize victims for criminal-justice reform.
Hundreds of members of the group traveled by bus from Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg and other places in Florida to meet up with state lawmakers this week.
At an emotional press conference at the Capitol Tuesday, people quietly recited the names of friends and family members who were crime victims.
The names included people who were killed at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland last year, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, and in many other less noted acts of violence committed throughout the state.
Only eight percent of violence victims get help from a victim service agency, according to a Department of Justice report published in December. Thomas says those statistics drive home the point that it’s time that victims of crimes get a seat at the policy table – and that’s why he and others came to Tallahassee.
“We need our stories in the media,” he said. “To let policy makers know who crime victims are, what happened to us, and what can make us heal.”
Debbie Ortiz is a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence. The Spring Hill woman says it wasn’t until she received help that she was able to break the cycle of abuse. But she said she had to reach a breaking point and almost lost her life to suicide before getting help.
“How is that okay?” she asked at the press conference. “Getting people what they need early will prevent compounded trauma.”
Tallahassee resident Agnes Furey’s 40-year-old daughter Patricia and six-year-old grandson Christopher were murdered in 1998. She says her life’s mission ever since has been to stop the cycle of crime.
“Crime survivors understand all too well how public policy and safety policy should prioritize prevention, rehabilitation and trauma recovery,” she told the crowd. “It doesn’t make sense to me that people living with an old conviction can’t become barbers, beauticians and construction contractors, because a conviction prevents them from getting an occupation license in that field. As a crime survivor, I want people to be held accountable, but I also want people who want to turn their lives around be able to do so.”
The group has an agenda. Among their proposals are:
Extending the default time limit to report a crime from 72 hours to five days.
Extending the default time limit to apply for funds from the Florida Bureau of Victim Compensation from one year to five years.
Eliminating several current lifetime eligibility bans that can deny victim compensation awards.
More investments in programs and policies that “actually stop the cycles of crime.”
More treatment and rehabilitation prioritized over more spending on incarceration.
A justice system that puts victims’ needs and experiences at the center of policymaking debates.
State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County, state Rep. Lawrence McClure, a Republican from Hillsborough County, and Tampa Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart addressed the crowd as well.
“I’m on a mission to reform our criminal justice system,” Hart said, admitting that it hasn’t been easy for her as a freshman Democratic lawmaker (for example, her legislative proposal to allow inmates the opportunity to reduce their sentences with good behavior has gone nowhere in the House). “This is a very, very difficult place to navigate.”
But she emphasized that they should never stop pushing lawmakers to hear them out.
“Call your legislators. Call your senators. That’s how you all will make this happen. That’s how you will make us hear your voice,” Hart said.
In addition to Florida, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice have state and local chapters in California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.