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California’s crime survivors must speak out for smart justice

As part of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, more than 500 survivors will join law enforcement and community leaders at a conference in Sacramento on Monday and Tuesday to call for smart justice polices and more investments in prevention, rehabilitation and recovery.

I will be one of them.

On Aug. 24, 2009, I was living in Hartford, Conn. I had finished college and was offered a contract to play professional basketball in Europe. My dreams were coming true. That evening, as I was leaving a convenience store, two men tried to rob me. Before I knew it, I was lying on the ground, shot twice in my back. I nearly died. Weeks in the hospital turned into months of rehabilitation. My basketball career was over.

Certainly, at times, I was angry and asked, “Why me?” But 5 out of 10 men in my family had been shot, and I’ve lost 40 friends to gun violence, including my best friend when we were only 10.

While recovering in the hospital, I decided to replace despair and resentment with action. I made a commitment to stop cycles of violence that for decades have plagued too many communities of color, even while spending on prisons skyrocketed.

I began working with residents to call for peace and real solutions focused on preventing gun violence and healing our communities. There’s no shortage of resources; it’s that too little is invested in helping victims or our hardest hit communities.

I also decided to share my story. We have to change the unfair stereotype that when youths of color are victims of crime, we must have been involved. That’s why I moved to Sacramento last year to organize young men as part of the crime survivors program for Californians for Safety and Justice. The group found that 1 in 5 Californians were crime victims, that rates were higher for young people of color and that most were unable to access services.

I know of this problem firsthand. It’s nearly impossible to focus on healing and safety while trying to pay medical bills, handle inquiries from law enforcement and return to work. Services intended to help survivors are unknown or hard to find.

Meanwhile, community groups that have credibility with residents operate with little to no support. This must change, and there is an unprecedented opportunity to do just that. This year, the federal Victims of Crime Act increased $1.6 billion to nearly $2.4 billion.

But if this money only goes to the same places, we should not expect different results. That’s why I’m working with California survivors to ensure that a portion of the state’s $232 million goes to groups best positioned to serve our most vulnerable communities.

When I see the scars on my body from that night in 2009, I often think I should not be here. But when I look at the faces of survivors struggling to recover and think about our growing movement for new priorities, I am reminded of what I am here to do.

Aswad Thomas of Fair Oaks is national organizer for Californians for Safety and Justice.

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