Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State University football team’s former defensive coordinator, now stands trial in a Pennsylvania courtroom on more than forty counts of allegedly sexually assaulting minors, boys involved with Sandusky’s non-profit organization, The Second Mile.
During the same week last November when the airwaves filled with the news of Sandusky’s first arrest, forensic psychiatrist Leslie Leibowitz testified, to much less attention, in New Haven during the penalty phase of Joshua Komisarjevsky’s Cheshire home invasion/murder trial. The doctor’s testimony focused on how the sexual abuse Komiarjevsky suffered as a child went unreported, untreated and eventually contributed to his murders and sexual abuse of Jennifer, Haley and Michaela Petit in 2007.
We did not know it at the time, but the media’s juxtaposing the young victims in Pennsylvania with a defendant who has committed some of the most horrific murders in recent history provided the best lesson in crime prevention. That is, the best protection against violent crime is preventing the offender from being created in the fist place. Komisarjevsky was once almost exactly like Sandusky’s victims are now and he shows what childhood sexual trauma victims can become without proper treatment of their abuse.
Placed side by side, the two stories also exposed our double standard in how we view childhood sexual abuse victims; the victims in Pennsylvania continue to receive our sympathy while Komisarjevsky, a childhood sexual abuse victim himself, is thoroughly reviled, so much so that we sentenced him to die. We have sympathy for victims at the time of their trauma but we blame them later when the untreated effects of that abuse cultivate aggression, eventually leading those victims to commit violent acts.
Trauma does not automatically color sexual abuse victims’ futures with pre-determined crime sprees and Komisarjevsky’s other contributed problems were well-documented. Unlike Komisarjevsky, because their abuse has been reported and acknowledged, treatment and psychotherapy can intervene and greatly improve the Second Mile boys’ chances at blocking trauma’s effects on their futures.
But not all victims are that lucky. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, upwards of 76 percent of all male violent offenders in the U.S. are victims of childhood sexual abuse. Estimates of the number of female offenders with sexual trauma histories range from 68 percent to 95 percent, according to public health studies. These numbers connect trauma and crime in ways we can no longer ignore. Policymakers bandy about reasons for law-breaking—poverty, lack of education and addiction—but nothing associates itself more with crime than trauma. If we had severed this link by treating violent male offenders who experienced sexual abuse “before”—at the time of their traumas, when we felt sympathy for them—then we could have prevented the “afters”—the crimes that made us despise them. Victims’ rights advocates who appreciate the link between abuse receivable and abuse payable must feel tremendous inner conflict while they work: Are they advocating now for a future predator?
If over 75 percent of predators were sexually abused themselves, then Sandusky’s and Komisarjevsky’s trials provide solid evidence that what we seek to punish in these two men is not their actions, but our own failures: through wishy-washy reporting mandates, we encourage underreporting of traumatic events; through stigma, we shame victims into transferring responsibility for the event onto themselves; through sexism and unreasonable expectations of men, we discourage them from acknowledging emotional pain and seeking treatment for abuse. Even though statistics indicate that one in seven men has been sexually abused, accompanying statistics report that women are three times more likely to report abuse than men, so the problem is much wider and more devastating than we know. Ultimately, through our own actions, we strengthen the link between childhood sexual trauma and crime because we help harbor the secrets.
We dislike knowing the backstories of criminal defendants. Turning our eyes toward an offender’s own history of trauma assigns victim status to the perpetrator and upends the culture of blame in criminal justice. Knowing that an offender has been abused himself, and that very victimization may have started him on a course of behavioral dysfunction that led to his crime, shifts our nation’s focus towards prevention and therapy and away from retribution, that pound of flesh we want to measure on the scales of justice.
But between the pages of the backstory we find the starting point for stopping victims’ painful experiences from changing them in ways that guarantee both their own demise and the exploitation of others. By properly identifying and treating childhood sexual abuse victims, we may be able to stop the conception of crime. Between the pages of the backstory is where the lesson on crime prevention begins.
Chandra Bozelko is Inmate No. 330445 at York Correctional Institution in Niantic.