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Aswad Thomas — Surviving Violence, Rethinking Safety
Episode 423rd April 2024 • Encounters With Dignity • Catholic Mobilizing Network
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Aswad Thomas is no stranger to the physical and psychological impacts of crime and violence.

His experience as a victim of gun violence led him to his current work with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice — an organization that centers the voices of those most impacted by crime in the work of finding and creating solutions to it.

In this episode, Aswad highlights a key tenet of restorative justice: that responses to harm should always be victim-centered. He also shares about victims’ rights and services, and how we can support a reality where the response to harm and crime is one that is rooted in safety for all.


Caitlin Morneau

Welcome to Encounters with Dignity, a podcast on restorative justice from Catholic Mobilizing Network. Here, we bear witness to the stories, learnings, and actionable wisdom of people putting restorative justice into practice.

I’m Caitlin Morneau, CMN’s Director of Restorative Justice, and your host.

This season we’re taking a close look at the U.S. criminal legal system through the eyes of those most impacted by it.

Together, we’ll unpack the connections between Catholic values and responses to crime that allow all those involved to understand the impact of the harm — and do what is needed to make things right. May it be so.

On today’s episode, we’ll talk with Aswad Thomas, a crime survivor and advocate. He’ll shed light on a new movement of victim’s rights — one that’s creating community safety through healing — with the stories and needs of crime victims at the center.

Here, we remember that restorative justice is above all, a victim-centered approach. In the past 10 years, one in four people in the U.S. has been a victim of crime. Of these, half were victims of violent crime and a disproportionate number were young people, people of color, and people living in low-income communities.

Jesus’ first concern was always with people who were marginalized and vulnerable, by poverty, hunger, illness, and yes, by crime. But the US criminal legal system almost solely focuses on punishing the person who’s guilty, leaving victims’ needs unmet. And as we’ll hear, even the resources intended to meet their needs often go unutilized.

Aswad Thomas is the Vice President of the Alliance for Safety and Justice and National Director of ASJ’s flagship program, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. Aswad is a survivor of gun violence, a story he’ll share with us in more detail. Driven by this experience, Aswad has dedicated his life to organizing communities, and helping elevate the voices of those victims and their families, through state and federal policymaking.

Aswad, thank you so much for joining us today.

Aswad Thomas

Thank you so much for having me.

Caitlin Morneau

I want to start by just inviting you to share a little bit about your story, and the impact that gun violence has had on you personally.

Aswad Thomas

Throughout my life I've lost over forty friends to gun violence, including my best friend Rubin at a young age. And so violence has always impacted my life.

yer as well and so for me, in:

But quickly it became the lowest point in my life when I was shot twice in my back while leaving a corner store in my neighborhood. And those bullets ended my professional basketball career but also nearly ended my life as well. And going through that experience in the hospital just being traumatized and in the physical pain of recovering from those wounds….

And I remember when I was about to be discharged, you know, my doctors and my nurses came over to my bedside and they told me about the physical challenges that I would have recovering from those gunshot wounds. But the thing that they never mentioned to me was the psychological effects of being a victim, especially being a victim having to be released from that hospital back into the same neighborhood where I was shot blocks away.

And through that recovery process in my mother's one-bedroom apartment on her couch in the living room as I'm recovering from these gunshot wounds, just dealing with immense physical pain, recovering from that shooting, but also I was dealing with the flashbacks. The nightmares. The PTSD. I was going through a deep state of depression. The anxiety. I was also living in constant fear of my life. And nobody ever prepared me for that experience of the psychological effects that happens on your mind, on your body, when you are recovering from being a victim of any type of crime.

And so those moments for me were some of the most challenging of dealing with the aftermath of being a victim, but also not able to get access to things like victim services or victim compensation, which so many of victims experience that same thing of being harmed and not getting any support.

Caitlin Morneau

And then you started reaching out to some of your family members, right? Can you tell us about some of those conversations?

Aswad Thomas

Yeah, you know when I was recovering from that shooting, a few things that happened throughout that process. Number one, law enforcement came to visit me several times. And each time they came to visit me, it was always about the case. They never asked me how I was doing. They never told me about the victim compensation program or tried to connect me to any victim services. And also they never connected me to a victim advocate in their department that was supposed to work with victims like myself.

And so as I was starting to recover, I just realized that I would have to go through this experience on my own with just my family and I.

victim of gun violence in the:

back just like myself in the:

And then I called two of my cousins. And the two of them were also victims of gun violence. One of them has been paralyzed from the waist down. I asked them that same question, “After you got shot did you get any help?” and they both said no. So in my immediate family, five out of the 10 males are victims of gun violence and all of us had plenty of interactions with the justice system after those incidents but none that actually led to any support or services.

But the thing that really changed my life was during my last doctor's appointment learning that the teenager that had shot me was also a victim of gun violence himself four years before I got shot and the doctor that saved my life also saved his life as well. And just like me he was released from that same hospital back into that same neighborhood with no services and no support. And I strongly feel like his unaddressed trauma played a huge role with my shooting years later.

Caitlin Morneau

What a shock it must have been to learn about how your surgeon was a connector between the two of you. You know, it really just reminds me of how interconnected our lives are as God’s children, yes, of course, but also in the particulars of our suffering.

Now, Aswad, I know that you’re a man of faith. And I'm curious to hear what kind of role your church – community and leadership – played in your recovery story. And from that, how do you think faith communities can better show up in supporting victims and survivors of crime?

Aswad Thomas

It was such a blessing. I remember being in a hospital days after I got shot, Reverend Henry Brown from Hartford, Connecticut, he used to come to visit me every day and he would always tell me you know, Aswad, just be still and let God do his work. And he would repeat that every time he came to visit me and like those words and and and support of prayer from him and my mom every single day, I strongly believe that played a huge role in my recovery process. It's one of the reasons why I think I recovered so fast.

And when I think about the role that the faith community can play, it’s what Reverend Brown provided for me – was words of comfort, words of support and continuous engagement, being able to start having those conversations, especially in church and faith spaces about trauma. Churches and faith spaces play a huge role in helping people heal and recover and also play a huge role in understanding the ability to forgive those that have caused harm as well.

Caitlin Morneau

Yeah, it’s so true. And of course we know that journeying with forgiveness looks different for each person, but it is so closely connected to that freedom to ask those big and very human questions of “Why did this happen to me?”and just try to make any kind of sense out of what’s happened.

I’m so grateful for Rev. Brown and all those who were a part of your healing. Now, you travel the country talking and walking, and advocating alongside victims and survivors of crime. So tell us, how did Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice get started and what are some of the core problems that you’re seeking to address?

Aswad Thomas

So the Alliance for Safety and Justice, we began our work almost twelve years ago with a very unique perspective. We wanted to move the state of California – at the time – and also the country away from a conversation about justice reforms in terms of, like, reducing incarceration. But instead we wanted to have a conversation about real safety. So for us as a organization, you know, the last decade of our work has really been built off of making that possible. And we strongly believed back then and continue to believe today that we shouldn't be having conversations about incarceration or safety without focusing on the experiences of people who have been devastated by both violence and incarceration.

d you know, think about it in:

People who are survivors, a lot of the survivors that I meet with, every day you know I hear this over and over again that for decades, the voices and experiences of crime victims, especially victims from those communities that have been most harmed by violence and most harmed by the justice system, were often left out of the conversations about public safety. Were also left out of the conversations about accessing victim services as well.

So, when you think about the tough on crime movement, that was led by politicians. It was led by law enforcement, the media, but also was led by a narrow voice of crime victims and organizations that represent victims. And they've been able to pass over 32,000 laws since the kind of the birth of mass incarceration. And so we strongly believe that we have failed communities for decades and we have continued to fail communities because we're not uplifting up the people who are most impacted by crime and violence and ensuring that what their solutions are should be driving our policy conversations.

Caitlin Morneau

Yeah, so talk to us a little bit about what those solutions ought to look like.

Aswad Thomas

So when you think about our organization, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, we are a national network of over 200,000 victims of crime across the country and when you talk to crime victims about what safety looks like for them, many crime victims and many communities say we need access to mental health services. We need access to things that actually help people heal like a trauma recovery center. We need access to things like getting people back to work, as well. We need to make sure that we are prioritizing a justice system that’s focused on rehabilitation for those that has caused harm. But also when they are coming out of the justice system that we are removing barriers for them to access things like jobs, housing and other services. Those are the things and the solution that actually stop the cycle of violence and stop people from going in contact with the justice system as well.

Caitlin Morneau

gram. And that as recently as:

Aswad Thomas

So I just came back from Charlotte, North Carolina, meeting with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and parents who've lost loved ones to homicide, gun violence victims themselves. And in that conversation of over 20 survivors representing 15 organizations, you know, I asked everyone to raise their hand if they ever heard of the victim compensation program and out of those 20 people, only two of them had heard of victim compensation. And many of those organizations work directly with law enforcement, work directly with the justice system but have never heard of the victim compensation program.

There's a huge gap in resources and services for crime victims to get access to compensation in victim services. I want to touch a little bit and go deeper about some of the barriers as it relates to the victim compensation programs. And these barriers exist because of the policies that are in place.

So just for example, you know, when a victim of domestic violence or gun violence, you know, in order to be eligible for the victim compensation program, you have to file a police report, in most states, within 48 hours or even, you know, 72 hours after becoming a victim. If you meet that threshold, in most states, you only have maybe a year or two after you became a victim to apply for the program. So, one is the short time limits that exist for victims to apply for the program.

Other barriers are that, you know, law enforcement often deem someone as a possible suspect or contributing to their own victimization and often when that happens that claim is denied. Often what also happens when a crime victim don't have all of the information and the documentation — you know sometimes you got to get your medical bills, sometimes you got to get your tax returns, you got to get your your pay stubs — when you don't have all of that information, that documentation, often when you apply, you often get denied because you're missing information for that application as well.

There's also the times where victims are too afraid to report a crime to law enforcement so they don't apply as well. So, like, in theory these rules might sound logical, but it increases so many barriers. It really creates a wall of exclusions from people from accessing the victim compensation program.


Caitlin Morneau

Thank you so much for explaining all of this.

So, I know in this conversation we haven't used the words restorative justice yet per se um, but to me everything you're describing and so much of your work in advocacy just encompasses the core principles of restorative justice that's about centering the needs of the persons who are harmed that and what they genuinely need in order to regain that sense of safety and reintegrate with their community and daily life in the wake of trauma and allowing the people in communities most impacted by violence to be the ones to define what healing and recovery ought to look like, what accountability and transformation ought to look like.

As you've described, that can look like a number of things. How do you see opportunities for restorative justice processes or encounter to be a part of this wider picture of victims rights advocacy and systemic transformation?

Aswad Thomas

So I remember the first day of trial and I'm sitting with the prosecutor and the detective in my case. I remember they were just, like, walking me through the court process and what to expect.

And I remember asking them, “Hey, you know, can you all tell me about the young man who you all had arrested that I'm going to face for the first time and testify about my experience that night?”

And I remember the prosecutor told me that this young man was nineteen years old. He was known to law enforcement. And I remember the more details that they shared about this young man, I started to think about how are we so different from each other?

We grew up in the same neighborhood, was exposed to the same things of poverty and violence. The only thing that came to mind for me that would make us any different was, you know, I was a very good basketball player. You know, my basketball gifts allowed me to travel the country, to go to college. And I just remember thinking about, like, what happened in that young man's life?

And so before I was supposed to go upstairs to testify, I asked the prosecutor, you know, “Hey, can I talk to that young man?” And I wanted to talk to him to let him know that I did forgive him. I wanted to let him know that I wasn't angry anymore. But most important, I wanted to ask him, you know, what were you going through that night that led you to shooting me? And I remember I asked the prosecutor, “Can I go talk to him?” and they immediately shut me down.

I knew that there was going to be accountability, but I also knew that I didn't want that 19 year old to be potentially found guilty and serve up to 40 years in prison. I know the impact of long-term incarceration, what that could have on families. My oldest brother, he's doing life without the possibility of parole in federal prison. So I know the devastation. And so I ended up continuing to advocate for that young man to get a plea deal of six to 10 years instead of facing 40 years in prison.

So for me, that's where my healing process really started. For many victims, healing and justice looks different for all of us. But unfortunately, the voices and the roles of crime victims, we often don't have a key decision-making power on what healing and justice looks like for us. And so we need to really invest in more restorative justice programs. We also need to design our criminal justice policies in a different way that really uplift what victims and survivors want and what they need. Often, it’s talking to the person that has caused them harm and those are the things that crime survivors – in addition to accessing the victim services and compensation – have been advocating for across the country as well.

Caitlin Morneau

Yeah, wow! Thank you so much and for just putting those opportunities within the context of the wider work that we need to be doing because it is all connected. Can you tell us a little bit more about the policies and program initiatives that you've seen be successful in meeting these needs that crime victims and survivors are asking for, are looking for, advocating for?

Aswad Thomas

We've been able to change about 100 laws across the country by listening to survivors, by training survivors to be organizers and advocates and bringing them to state capitals across the country. And we've been able to change victim compensation laws in about 12 states so far. And we've changed those laws by listening to survivors and what their experiences are related to compensation and helping them to develop policies and bills that work to remove those barriers.

In addition to that, my team and I, we travel across the country in all of the states that we work in, we have local chapters of crime survivors for safety and justice. And these are often in communities that continue to experience repeat crime and the violence. And one thing that I see firsthand is that there's not an infrastructure of mental health services and victim services in communities.

So we've been working to change that by expanding on a trauma recovery center model which is a one-stop shop that provides comprehensive mental health services, help victims apply for victim compensation, help people get access to housing and other resources as well. Now we have 52 trauma recovery centers.

Also survivors, through our network, have been leading criminal justice reforms across the country as well to reduce incarceration, to incentivize rehabilitation programs in prisons, to ensure that while people are incarcerated that they're completing, you know, mental health programs, drug treatment programs, life skills, job skills program so that when they come home, they come home with the tools and the skills and also the healing so when they get out of the justice system that they don't repeat those same cycles of violence.

Caitlin Morneau

I really appreciate all this – how the wellbeing of victim survivors and the wellbeing of people who are incarcerated really depend on one another. So I think my final question for you is, how do you want America to rethink public safety?

Aswad Thomas

Number one is, recognizing people as crime victims. In this nation, especially people that look just like me, have experienced so much crime and violence for decades. But often we're not seen as victims. But we are. And often when incidents of violence happen in communities, the result is more police or being more tough on crime instead of more investments into healing and recovery resources.

And I just want all of our listeners out there, so close your eyes and just think about where you feel most safe. Right. For the majority of us, we probably said at home, with family, maybe at your local park, at a museum, in a garden. I don't think the majority of us said that we feel most safe with having more police or having more prisons or having more incarceration. Most of us feel most safe in community with each other. And like those are the things that we really have to invest more – in community.

Caitlin Morneau

Mm, thank you so much, Aswad, for closing us with this meditation. May we all be a part of making this vision a reality. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Aswad Thomas

Of course. Thank you all for having me.

Caitlin Morneau

As I reflect on this conversation with Aswad, I think about how so many of us, myself included, were taught that justice, victims rights, and safety were supposed to be attained through punishment. But at the end of the day, when most survivors are asked what justice, rights, and safety means to them, their answer is healing and support – for all involved.

This responsibility lies with our policymakers, and courts, and local service providers. It also lies within our churches and faith communities.

If you’re wanting to become more familiar with how to share in that responsibility, check out Catholic Mobilizing Network’s resource “Do’s and Dont’s for Accompanying Victim-Survivors Through a Restorative Process.” It’s linked in the show notes.

You can also learn more about Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice on their website linked in the show notes.

Throughout this conversation I just kept hearing that powerful quote from Fr. Richard Rohr, that “suffering not transformed will most assuredly be transmitted”. If we attend to violence at its source, then beloved community is within our reach.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Encounters With Dignity. Be sure to subscribe to our show from your favorite podcast platform, or by visiting

Join us next month when we’ll talk with Rev. Chris Hoke. He founded and runs a program in Washington state that pairs reentering citizens with church teams ready to welcome them home.

To stay connected with Catholic Mobilizing Network, and our mission to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, follow us on social media or sign up for our emails at

Let us close in prayer.

Good and gracious God, thank you for this opportunity to come together, to be in relationship across time and distance. May this conversation remind us that every person has dignity because we are made in your image and likeness — cherished and beloved. May we participate with one another in the redemption that you made possible by your suffering, death, and resurrection. And may we bear witness to your healing, restorative, transformative work in the world. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, your son. Amen.



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