As they watched protests over systemic racism and police brutality unfold around the country, staff members at Community Action Stops Abuse, a St. Petersburg domestic violence center known as CASA, began to wonder what they could do.
“We were hearing and feeling a lot of frustration and started to ask, ‘How do we help reform the system?' That can create greater justice for marginalized communities,” said Lariana Forsythe, CEO of CASA.
Nick McDevitt, who has been on the board of CASA for a decade, had an idea: Reform the criminal justice system from the inside out.
CASA, which McDevitt said has law enforcement officers on its board, has created a scholarship to support survivors of domestic violence and people of color who want to study criminal justice in college.
The Pinellas Community Foundation will administer the scholarship, which already has a fund of $25,000.
McDevitt donated the initial $12,500, and the Foundation contributed another $12,500. In his experience working with domestic violence survivors, McDevitt has been struck by their high levels of empathy — something the criminal justice system could use more of, he said.
Frustration with the criminal justice system is common among survivors of domestic violence, Forsythe said.
Prosecution rates are low, and victims sometimes find themselves struggling to be believed, she said. They often find themselves losing more in the court system than the perpetrators, she said, from custody to income.
“There’s a lot of victim blaming and shaming,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who don’t understand trauma or the effects of being gaslighted.”
Duggan Cooley, CEO of the Pinellas Community Foundation, said he hopes the scholarship will lead to a more understanding criminal justice system.
“I think one of the most important things we can do in any system is to incorporate a variety of perspectives, especially lived experience,” he said. “We’re hearing such an outcry against what feels like tone-deafness to lived experiences.
Cooley said the scholarship could lead people to careers as police officers, attorneys or judges.
“Education is a great equalizer, but it’s important to be able to provide access to that education,” he said.
The experiences of domestic violence survivors and people of color are not mutually exclusive, nor directly comparable, Cooley said, but similarities exist in how abuse takes place.
“The dynamic underlying domestic violence is power and control,” he said. “That is similar, beyond the criminal justice system. But at the heart of any system that perpetuates systemic racism, is power and control.”
McDevitt said he hopes the scholarship is a step toward making the criminal justice system more reflective of the people it serves.
“From some of the ways people have reacted to the protests, it’s become evident there are a lot of people who need to experience something to understand,” he said. “There’s a saying, ‘Hurt people hurt people.' But people can also recover and break the cycle.”