Michael Shank: A victim’s plea for criminal justice reform

This commentary is by Michael Shank, a resident of Montpelier who is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

When you’re a victim of gun-related violence, there’s never really an end to it. It keeps re-emerging, reminding you of the initial trauma it caused. It can live with you forever. The 300-plus mass shootings across America this year are a tragic illustration of how common gun violence is becoming and the traumatic wake it’s leaving for more and more Americans.

When I told my story in USA Today last year about my experience with gun-related violence in Vermont, little did I know that I’d be locked into an ongoing relationship with the trauma and those who caused it, for years.

Last year, I decided to sell my Vermont farm and animal sanctuary after gun-related violence — which included death threats against me and my neighbors by an armed white extremist and ex-felon — made life unlivable there. Local law enforcement officials were unequipped or reluctant to intervene, so I told my story nationally as a desperate, final attempt to bring attention to Vermont’s lax gun laws that allow violent people to purchase and retain weapons. Weeks after my story ran, federal agents finally stepped in, disarmed the neighbor most responsible for the violence, and took him into custody on federal charges of being a felon in possession of firearms.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s plea hearing for this particular neighbor was this June — nearly a year later. Unfortunately, these constant reminders mean that I, and others involved, relive the trauma repeatedly. It makes it very difficult to move on and heal from this nightmare. And soon, we’ll have to deal with his state charges, too, since they involve charges of criminal threatening — specifically, death threats — toward me and others.

Here’s the real kicker, however. Given that U.S. attorneys with the Department of Justice think that my neighbor will be sentenced later this year to only 15-23 months in prison, out of a maximum of 10 years and a $250,000 fine, there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again to me or someone else — especially given how easy it is to get access to guns in Vermont, regardless of one’s criminal record.

That kind of limited response doesn’t fix bad behavior. On the contrary, it keeps recidivism rates high among federal offenders. Roughly half of federal offenders are rearrested for a new crime or rearrested for violating supervision conditions.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I want a longer prison sentence for my neighbor. Because I know that 10 years wouldn’t lead to better outcomes than 15-23 months. That’s just eight more years of the same treatment in, as the Equal Justice Initiative put it, “overcrowded, violent, and inhumane jails and prisons that do not provide treatment, education, or rehabilitation.” Those extra eight years will help no one. 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, extensive community service to repair the damage done, appearance at drug courts, access to cognitive therapy, anger management, and mental health services and support. That, along with better gun safety laws, would give me some faith that the same harm won’t happen again.

But in reaching out to the Department of Justice attorneys involved in the federal case, based in Burlington, it was made clear that they don’t even have restorative justice as an option in sentencing. So, as a result, they wouldn’t be able to handle such a request if and when I file it as part of my victim impact statement in advance of the sentencing date later this year.

That’s a problem. By failing to pursue other corrective measures that can reduce recidivism, like restorative justice, the Department of Justice, in effect, establishes a revolving door into and out of the federal prison system. And as long as taxpayers pay for that revolving door, there’s little incentive to replace it with something more effective, corrective and long-lasting.

Many U.S. states have restorative justice statutes in place 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, they wouldn’t have the capacity or infrastructure to ensure it happens.

We can do better, surely. With mental illness, drug misuse, murders 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 enabling neighbors who cause harm, like mine, to repair that harm and ultimately return to society.

This window into what it’s like to experience the long-lasting effects of gun violence in America is incredibly frustrating. And so are the ineffectual 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 (the greater the inequality, the more likely the violence).

What’s most maddening is that our punitive-focused culture and governments intentionally create systems set up to fail. Yes, it’s great for the prison industry because it keeps the clients coming. But it fails everyone else. It fails the offender, it fails the victim, it fails the families involved and, ultimately, it fails the community it’s allegedly trying to protect.

This system isn’t sustainable. The more violence, the more incarceration, and the more the cycle continues. If we want to disrupt the revolving door, let’s ensure my neighbor, and all individuals who are incarcerated or released from prison, have everything they need to succeed in post-prison life and return to the community with the support necessary to repair and rebuild. Otherwise, it’s just more victimization for everyone.

With gun violence creating new victims and survivors daily, we need a new way to deal with this epidemic of trauma and violence. Because, unquestionably, the status quo isn’t working, not for the offenders and not for the victims.

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Michael Shank: A victim’s plea for criminal justice reform

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