Reentry and Integration Division
National Crime Victim Awareness Week
The Cameron Herald
By Carole Sparks, Milam County and District Attorney’s Office
Crime Victim Coordinator
April 16, 2010
April 18-24, 2010 is National Crime Victims’ Awareness Week, raising the question, “Why does fairness, dignity and respect for crime victims matter to everyone?” It matters because respect builds cooperation in our communities.
Showing dignity and respect to crime victims strengthens public safety and respect for the law. For example, last year in a nearby courtroom, three elderly widows described crimes that had shattered their lives. The man about to be sentenced had hogtied, gagged and terrorized the women while ransacking their homes for jewelry and cash. The women were presenting victim impact statements, their right under the law, for the judge to consider at sentencing. After sentencing, they praised the detectives who had worked the cases, the officers and prosecutors who treated them with “great respect.” The victims left the courtroom feeling fairly treated and that justice had been served.
Yet not all criminal cases end so satisfactorily. How many victims in our nation know and exercise these rights? How many feel they have been included in the criminal justice process, respectfully treated and fairly heard? That is the goal of the Milam County and District Attorney’s office and law enforcement officers working with us. We should consider how we would feel if the justice system ignored or blamed us, the victim, involved in a crime through no fault of our own. Say you have reported an assault by two strangers who stole your wallet, beat you up and threatened to kill you if you reported the crime, yet you do the right thing and report the crime along with the threat against your life. The robbers are arrested and arraigned, but you had no opportunity to tell the judge of the robbers’ threat. The judge releases them on bail without a protective order prohibiting any contact with you. Frightened over the failure to consult with you, you conclude that justice was not served.
The likely impact of this case should concern every citizen. As victims share frustrations with others, justice authorities lose respect and community support. Fewer victims may decide to come forward so fewer crimes are solved and prosecuted leaving criminals to perpetuate again. Failure to ensure fairness, dignity and respect to crime victims harms everyone. When victims know and assert their rights we advance public safety and our nations’ highest ideals.
Another way to advance justice being served would be to sit on a jury panel and fairly decide by the evidence produced, to convict those criminals in our midst. Whether it is drunken driving charges, burglaries, assaults against families or members of the community, a criminal act has occurred. We need to stand together as a community and let our voices be heard that this behavior is not acceptable! Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.”
We still need National Crime Victims’ Rights Week because despite the progress that has been made, there is still more work to do. Some states grant few rights to victims and they are not always enforced. If a state does not actively promote victims’ rights, victims may be denied access to courtrooms and sentencing hearings, or protection from offenders, or the right to confer with prosecutors. Too few victims receive compensation or court ordered restitution, and only a fraction of victims receive assistance services that can help them rebuild their lives. These failures, wherever they happen, deny victims the fairness, dignity and respect they need and deserve and that the founders of NCVRW envisioned.
We also must insist that these rights apply to every victim, every time. Our nation’s youth, who are more frequently victimized than any other age group, must receive the full protection of the law and the services to help them recover from violence, sexual assaults, and other crimes. Those who commit crimes against children must be prosecuted, and children should have access to information about the progress of their cases, just like adult rights. Children have the right to have parents, guardians, or trusted adults present while they are testifying, and state laws should be expanded to allow children to testify on videotape. Victims with disabilities, the elderly, and victims with language limitations should know and not be afraid to fully exercise their rights. We can promote dignity by insisting on the fullest possible protections for victims. Giving victims prior notice when offenders are to be released from prison helps keep both the victim and the community safe.
We can promote fairness by knowing about victims’ rights and supporting victims who assert them. Being able to present a Victim Impact Statement in court at a sentencing hearing is a big step in showing dignity and respect for victims. Notifying victims about criminal proceedings or about the escape or release of prisoners ensures victims some form of control in the process. Victims should be protected from threats, intimidation and retaliation from offenders and should be encouraged to request court-ordered restitution from offenders for crime-related expenses. We must insist that officials enforce these rights and consider victim priorities. That is what we seek here in Milam County. We regard every victim as an integral part of the justice system.
Finally we can promote respect simply by listening to victims and treating them as participants - not spectators - in the criminal justice system. Law enforcement and judicial personnel know about victims’ needs and how to address them. A community can organize a coordinated response for specific crimes, like family violence, trafficking or identity theft. Victim service providers can be hospital staff, or the clergy as well as caring friends and neighbors that work closely with the victim assistance coordinator to ensure victims’ needs are heard, resources offered and a supportive circle is thus formed. Victims who feel they have been heard and respected are more likely to view the criminal justice process favorably. And that is a winning outcome for all involved.