Michael Shank: A Victim’s Plea for Criminal Justice Reform
This commentary is from Michael Shank, a resident of Montpellier who is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
When you are a victim of gun violence, there is never really an end. It keeps reappearing, reminding you of the initial trauma it caused. He can live with you forever. The more than 300 mass shootings across America this year are a tragic illustration of the trivialization of gun violence and the traumatic wake it leaves for more and more Americans.
When I told my story in USA Today last year about my experience of gun violence in Vermont, little did I know that I would be locked into an ongoing relationship with the trauma and those who suffered it. caused, for years.
Last year, I decided to sell my Vermont farm and animal shelter after gun violence — which included death threats against me and my neighbors by an armed white extremist and ex- criminal – made life unlivable there. Local law enforcement officials were unequipped or unwilling to intervene, so I told my story nationwide as a last desperate attempt to draw attention to Vermont’s lax laws on guns that allow violent people to buy and keep guns. Weeks after my story appeared, federal agents finally stepped in, disarmed the neighbor most responsible for the violence, and arrested him on federal charges of being a felon in possession of firearms.
The US Department of Justice’s plea hearing for this particular neighbor took place in June, nearly a year later. Unfortunately, these constant reminders mean that I, and others involved, relive the trauma over and over. It is very difficult to move on and heal from this nightmare. And soon, we will also have to deal with his charges against the state, as they involve charges of criminal threats – specifically, death threats – against me and others.
Here’s the real kicker, though. Given that US Justice Department lawyers believe my neighbor will be sentenced later this year to just 15 to 23 months in prison, out of a maximum of 10 years and a $250,000 fine, there is no guarantee that this will not will happen again. to me or anyone else – especially given how easy it is to get guns in Vermont, regardless of their criminal record.
This kind of limited response does not correct bad behavior. On the contrary, it keeps recidivism rates high among federal offenders. About half of federal offenders are rearrested for a new crime or for violating supervision conditions.
That doesn’t mean I want a longer jail term for my neighbor though. Because I know 10 years wouldn’t do any better than 15-23 months. It’s just eight more years of the same treatment, as the Equal Justice Initiative put it, “overcrowded, violent and inhuman prisons and prisons that offer no treatment, education or rehabilitation” . Those extra eight years won’t help anyone. Not the person who victimized us. Not society. And not us as victims.
I want the federal justice system to pursue a different kind of response. A response with restorative justice for the victims involved, expanded community service to repair the harm done, appearance in drug courts, access to cognitive therapy, anger management, and health services and support mental. That, combined with better gun safety laws, would give me some confidence that the same evil will not happen again.
But in contacting the Justice Department lawyers involved in the federal case, based in Burlington, it was made clear that they don’t even have restorative justice as a sentencing option. So, therefore, they would not be able to process such a request if and when I file it as part of my victim impact statement before the sentencing date later this year.
It is a problem. By failing to pursue other corrective measures that can reduce recidivism, such as restorative justice, the Department of Justice is effectively establishing a revolving door in and out of the federal prison system. And as long as taxpayers are paying for this revolving door, there’s little incentive to replace it with something more efficient, corrective, and sustainable.
Many US states have put in place restorative justice laws to provide alternative sentencing, with some states going further by developing agencies to help with the process. But not the feds. If the judge ruled in favor of a restorative justice process between my neighbor and me, he would not have the capacity or the infrastructure to make sure that happens.
We can do better, that’s for sure. With mental illness, addiction, murder and violent crime on the rise, something is clearly not working in America with our response or prevention. We could easily spend our tax dollars more efficiently and effectively, providing rehabilitation that works and allowing neighbors who cause damage, like mine, to repair that damage and ultimately reintegrate the society.
This window into what it’s like to experience the lasting effects of gun violence in America is incredibly frustrating. And the same goes for ineffective federal and state systems that have yet to invest in effective response or prevention, which includes addressing the known relationship between violence and income inequality (more the greater the inequality, the more likely violence is).
What is most infuriating is that our punishment-oriented culture and governments intentionally create systems designed to fail. Yes, it’s great for the prison industry because it brings in clients. But that fails for everyone. It is a failure for the offender, for the victim, for the families involved and, ultimately, for the community it claims to protect.
This system is not sustainable. The more violence there is, the more incarceration there is and the longer the cycle continues. If we want to disrupt the revolving door, let’s make sure my neighbor, and everyone else incarcerated or released from prison, has everything they need to be successful in their post-prison life and return to the community with the support they need to repair and rebuild. Otherwise, it’s just more victimization for everyone.
With gun violence creating new victims and survivors every day, we need a new way to address this epidemic of trauma and violence. Because, undoubtedly, the status quo does not work, neither for the offenders nor for the victims.