Crime Victim Rights-DC Public Safety-NOVA

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This radio program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2009/06/crime-victim-rights-dc-public-safety-nova/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

– Audio begins –

Len Sipes: From our microphones in Washington, D.C., this is D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. At our microphones today is Will Marling. He is the executive director for the National Organization for Victim Assistance. Also along with him is Janette Atkins. She is the administrator of the Green County Prosecutor’s Office in Xenia, Ohio, and to Will and to Janette, welcome to D.C. public safety.

Will Marling: Thank you, Len.

Janette Atkins: Thank you, Len.

Len Sipes: I think the big thing that is on everybody’s minds is this sense of victimization, victims’ issues. We promise, we say that we’re improving, we say that we’re going to be better in terms of victims of crime, and the average person listening to this program will declare that to be, oh, I don’t know, bureaucratic speak from a bureaucrat of all people, and I certainly am one, and I think there’s a basic mistrust that people have of the criminal justice system in terms of its ability to be sensitive to victims of crime. Will, you want to start with that?

Will Marling: Yeah, I can speak to that a little bit, and let me give a little bit of history just for your listeners, so we understand maybe the big picture first historically. I won’t go back too far, but you know, ultimately, the justice system is the state vs. the perpetrator, and when you have that kind of context, you immediately discover that, historically anyway, there is no place for the victim, unless that victim is a witness in the process of the state vs. the perpetrator. Well, we didn’t realize the implications of that, I think, in many ways, you don’t realize it until you become a victim and find yourself actually on the outside of the system looking in, you know, in a group of people who are discussing your victimization or the murder of your loved one, so it’s a strange perspective that people discover historically where victims actually aren’t technically a part of that system even though, really, justice is about victims. So we’ve been working for the past 25 years directly and officially, and far longer than that unofficially in some ways, to change that perspective, so that involves victims’ rights, for instance, and 33 out of 50 states now have a constitutional statement regarding the rights of victims, and those revolve around, you know, similar things to any proceedings, the right to information, the right to a speedy trial, and this kind of thing.

Len Sipes: And there’s also federal legislation, right Will?

Will Marling: That is Federal. That’s exactly right, through the victims of crime act, 1984, and then crime victims rights that came after that. We’ve had other legislation at a federal level. So that’s kind of the big picture, and we’ve been working at that, and even issues like the victim impact statement, which some people now are aware of where a victim in the course of proceedings, particularly in the aftermath of a judgment can state the impact of this crime upon their lives or their loved ones’ lives. All of that is relatively recent in terms of the justice system. So the justice system actually was never designed to be sensitive to anybody. It’s a system of laws, the rule of law, and unfortunately, victims who are impacted by this stuff significantly, physically, emotionally, financially, they discover that it’s not sensitive to them, and it sometimes create secondary victimization.

Len Sipes: Janette Atkins, I had occasion to assist, unfortunately, a neighbor who, their home had been broken into, and weeks had gone by without being contacted, and that person was about to engage the criminal justice system, and did so with this abiding dread. They were saying, “Leonard, can you help me figure all this out?” And I said, “Why don’t you contact the victims’ advocate at the county police department and discuss it with him or her? That would be a good place to start.” And his response was, “Well, that’s just going to tick off the cops, and nobody’s going to take it seriously if I’m complaining about not being contacted.” Again, this immediate sense of fear of working with the criminal justice system, that even though the victims’ movement, I think it’s been around for 30 or 40 years, there’s still this overall sense of reluctance of contacting us within the criminal justice system? Do you think it’s right or wrong?

Janette Atkins: I think that that perception that people have, Leonard, is absolutely true, particularly if people have not had a friend or a loved one or themselves been a victim of crime, and they’re finding themselves in that position for the first time, particularly in the larger, more urban areas, I believe that there is a general distrust, and an idea that nobody’s really going to help me, or I’m going to upset someone in the system, when in fact, I was listening to what Will was saying, I was thinking back to being in this business since 1982, and Will’s absolutely right. 25-30 years have passed, and even further back for some of the grassroots crisis centers and domestic violence shelters that were put into place before many of the system-based victims’ assistance programs like you just mentioned, police-based victims’ assistance programs, and back then, I think, it is absolutely true. Your neighbor’s perception was I will anger the police if I make a complaint to anybody that no one has contacted me about the burglary of my home, and I do think that things have changed dramatically, even since I’ve been in this business for about 27 years now, and the unfortunate thing is, for a burglary victim in a very large urban area, they are not going to get the same service than someone who has had a loved one murdered or may have been sexually assaulted, or their child abducted, they’re not going to get the same type of service that they would if they were in a smaller, rural area where there’s a little bit more hands-on victims’ assistance for all types.

Len Sipes: There’s a profound difference in terms of how an urban criminal justice system responds to individuals and how a suburban or rural criminal justice system responds to victims, but before we get into that, let me give out a couple contact numbers. The number for the National Organization for Victim Assistance is 1-800-TRY-NOVA, the website is www.trynova.org. Let me re-introduce the participants, Will Marling, the director of NOVA, and Janette Atkins, she’s an administrator with the Green County Prosecutor’s office in Xenia, Ohio, and before getting further into the program, I’d like to thank everybody for listening to D.C. Public Safety, we are now over 2 million requests for the program, very close to 150,000 requests on a monthly basis. We appreciate all of your letters, all of your phone calls, all of your emails, and all of your twitters. So you can contact me directly at Leonard, L-E-O-N-A-R-D, dot-sipes, S-I-P-E-S, @csosa.gov. I work for the Criminal Justice system in Washington, D.C. for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, a federal criminal justice agency, or get in touch with me by twitter, and that is http://www.twitter.com/lensipes. So we go back to that larger issue of fear, Will Marling, in terms of contacting those of us in the criminal justice system. When I started off as a Maryland State Trooper decades and decades ago when I was first introduced to the criminal justice system, I was formally trained that the victim and the witness were supposed to be left out of the criminal justice system to ensure the impartiality of the process, that if the victim and the witness was specifically designed to be a cog that you would insert into the process as needed, nothing more.

Will Marling: Right. Yeah, that’s exactly right. And the problem is that people still treat victims that way, even though with law enforcement, we’re constantly doing training with law enforcement to remind them that a cooperative witness is a good witness. It’s a much better witness than an uncooperative one, and just the process of, while some people might not feel compassion, even for victims, they should, even with that, just from a practical standpoint, working with these folks who are providing evidence for the case they were trying to prosecute, it’s just crucial, and recognizing the traumatic situation they’re in can be significant to helping them provide the evidence that you need. So it’s really important to recognize the role of victims, either as just the victim, or as a victim witness.

Len Sipes: The time as a police officer, and I spent a total of 6 years in law enforcement. You can’t come across a rape victim, you can’t come across somebody who is assaulted and somebody badly beaten, you can’t come across people who suffer through that victimization with their child or suffer through the victimization with a loved one without feeling a profound sense of attachment to that individual. They are going through one of the worst moments of their lives, and all they’re looking for, I think, is a little bit of common decency and respect from those of us in the criminal justice system, and Janette, I tell people all the time, we’re not that distant as you think we are, it’s simply a matter of contacting the right person in the right organization if you feel that you’re getting the runaround, if you feel that you’re not getting the cooperation that you need, that there are victims’ advocates, and prosecutors’ offices, there are victims’ advocates, and my organization, which is a parole and probation agency, there are victims’ advocates at the law enforcement level, that we exist to serve your needs, but still, people have this abiding fear of dealing with any bureaucracy. Janette?

Janette Atkins: That is very true, and I think that’s one of the ways that NOVA comes into play, because when I worked there, and as a volunteer for them for years, one of the things that we found, and I’m sure Will still finds today, is that people call NOVA who are at the end of their rope. They are the very people you’re describing that are feeling like no one is listening, they don’t know who to call or talk to, and everybody that they talk to puts them off to someone else or tells them, I’m sorry, we can’t help you, and NOVA’s role is to hook them up with the exact people you’re describing: the victim advocates, the people with knowledge about the criminal justice system, it could be a detective that’s investigating the case, or a uniformed officer, or a local victim advocate that can answer all their questions for what’s happening with their case and why. And I think the unfortunate thing we see is that, because, as I mentioned earlier, in the urban areas, they are so overwhelmed with their case loads, they are not doing the proactive approach of outreach to people, they’re waiting for those people to call them, if they can find them.

Len Sipes: When you’re running from call to call to call, and you just don’t have the time to take to sit down and deal with the family.

Will Marling: That’s right.

Janette Atkins: Unfortunately. And that comes with financial constraints, as you know, working in a city that is experiencing the same thing I am here in a more rural area in Ohio. Budget cuts are happening, staff layoffs occur, that’s where I think volunteers come in, and a lot of programs aren’t using volunteers effectively to do that outreach, or to provide that actual person that can call and talk to someone, or to give them information, and that’s where the disconnect happens, and then an organization like NOVA steps in, or someone can call an 800 number and be connected, many of the people that, I’m sure Will and the staff take calls from don’t even know a victims’ assistance program exists in their community.

Len Sipes: Will, I want to clarify something. Now is there federal legislation for federal crimes, and 35 out of the 50 states have constitutional amendments that protect victims’ rights? Do I have that correct, or do I have that wrong?

Will Marling: That’s right. There is federal legislation that addresses federal victims’ rights specifically, and then 33 out of 50 states to date have constitutional amendments that include victims’ rights.

Len Sipes: So the people hearing this throughout the country, or for that matter, throughout the world, because 20% of our audience is international, but people hearing this throughout the country as well as the District of Columbia metropolitan area, they probably have a better than even shot of being lawfully protected by their own state’s constitution as to basic rights, correct?

Will Marling: That’s exactly right. And of course, there’s legislation, even in the other states that would affirm services for victims and other things, so even without the constitutional amendment issue, they still could have accessibility to services and also advocacy. One of the challenges we face is the issue of enforcement, and if I could just give you an example, we had a call recently, a woman who had basically been raped, and she was looking forward to her day in court, they had caught the perpetrator, they accused, she received her subpoena, and the subpoena said, you’re to show up at 9:00 at the court, you’re going to be a victim witness, basically, because it’s basically her statement against the perpetrator, the evidence. Her, she showed up at 10 to 9 at the courtroom, and nobody was there, and this is just recent, and so she started inquiring what’s going on. “Well, the trial was at 8:30, and you weren’t here, so basically, we had to dismiss the case.” You see, everybody else had a subpoena for 8:30, she had a 9:00 subpoena.

Len Sipes: And that would make me so outrageously angry, and so mistrustful of the entire criminal justice system, that is almost inexcusable. We in the bureaucracy are so used to saying, “Look, it’s a big bureaucracy, it’s bustling, we handle hundreds of thousands of cases every year, mistakes are going to be made,” and they are. Within any bureaucracy, those sorts of mistakes are going to be made. But, if I’m that victim, and if I’m a family member of that victim, or if I’m the husband of that victim, or if I’m the brother of that victim, I’m going to be outraged by what happened.

Will Marling: Here’s what she said, and I quote, she said, “Emotionally and physically, I’m drained. Every time I even think about this tragedy, it sends me into a seizure. So I’m willing to put it behind me and go on with my life, what I have left, but I’m basically giving up. I can’t deal with this any longer,” so that’s a miscarriage of justice, in my view.

Len Sipes: Either one of you can comment on this one. When we, I’m looking at close to 40 years perspective of being in the criminal justice system, and I remember so vividly, I was a police officer working directly with individuals who were victimized, and understanding fully that this is not what we read in the paper. This is not what we brush off in the morning, this is a huge event in the lives of that individual, a huge event in the lives of the family, a huge event in the lives of everybody associated with that individual, and you know, the taste that leaves in your mouth forevermore is one of mistrust of the criminal justice system, you’re not willing to interact with the criminal justice system, and in many cases, the fear and the anger that goes along with that victimization, and it doesn’t have to be a violent victimization for that to happen, the fear and the anger lingers for the people directly connected to that individual, not for days, not for months, but for years. Without the criminal justice system coming to the aid of those individuals, that sends a fear and a mistrust lingers, it’s what causes people to move from urban areas, it’s what causes people not to invest in urban areas, it causes our schools to suffer, our businesses to suffer, so this is just not one individual fighting the bureaucracy, this is what happens when you’re victimized by crime, that’s bad enough, but especially when the criminal justice system doesn’t come to your emotional and factual aid, and I think that has a huge and devastating impact on our larger society.

Will Marling: There’s no question, and I would say this is the beauty of the victim advocacy network that we do have in our country. It’s why I myself am proud to be aligned with these folks, because they have obviously a difficult job, because they’re dealing with people traumatized continually, they’re dealing continually with people traumatized by crime, but also they provide that buffer, because if you can actually interface with the justice system with somebody who understands you and can get information and help for you, that can recalibrate your expectations, which sometimes is the issue. People think the justice system is out for them. Victims do. The justice system is only out for the rule of law. That’s all it’s there for, and that’s what frustrates people. It makes perfectly good sense that somebody should be convicted of a crime, in their mind, because they were violated. But there are, there’s a bigger picture to that, and we respect that. At the same time, if they can interface with a victim advocate who can assist them, that can change everything, because that can get them to resources and help they need, help them understand what’s transpired. Many times, we take our expectations into something, and those expectations were never accurate in the first place. They’re formed by TV and other things.

Len Sipes: Well, that’s just it, that’s part of the problem, because individuals see CSI on television, and they watch the endless number of crime related shows on television, and what happens on television, ladies and gentlemen, is not even close to being reality. This is why I cannot watch these shows, I cannot watch CSI, because the reality and what happens on television are two different things entirely, but I think managing expectations on the part of individuals, because the criminal justice system is a system of due process. That due process is not the victim’s due process, that due process is the accused due process, and that’s the backbone of our criminal justice system, so I would imagine, when I was trained by the Maryland State Police, decades and decades ago, that sense of the victim as being somebody that you simply plug in as necessary almost makes sense. I mean, due process is due process. 90%, 95% of what’s been written about our criminal justice system in terms of trying individuals accused of crime is due process and how you apply due process.

Will Marling: Well, and if you think about the big picture, if you violate due process working in law enforcement, and I worked in law enforcement in a previous life, and if you violate that against an accused, you basically wreck that case. If you violate due process against the victim, there’s significant harm done, but not necessary to the case.

Len Sipes: Well, nobody is going to, I suppose, theoretically at least, nobody is going to endanger your job by violating the victim’s due process, although now that we have a constitutional amendment in 33 of the 50 states and a federal constitutional amendment, that has changed, but it just strikes me that the emphasis still, to this day, is on the rights of the accused, and if you do not follow due process, if you screw up in terms of the application of the search warrant, or how you talk to that individual, whether or not it’s an in-custodial interrogation, or just a street interrogation, and whether or not you read his Miranda rights or not read his Miranda rights, whether or not you provide an attorney or not provide an attorney, those are all questions that we within the criminal justice system have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. So even today, 90% of our discussion is based upon that, and 10% of the discussion probably is, oh, we should do right by the victim. We should do right by the witness.

Will Marling: That’s right.

Janette Atkins: Leonard, I think there’s a phenomenon though, that I’ve watched evolve in the years that I’ve been doing this work as a victim advocate with television, and I agree with you, absolutely, that what people are watching on television in the CSI shows and those type of criminal justice related programs is not accurate. However, we’re seeing a phenomenon in cases like Caley Anthony, Natalie Holloway, Jessica Lunsford, I’m thinking of these children who were kidnapped, raped, the attention goes to them from the media from these tabloid shows, from the Court TV shows, and suddenly, the nation is now watching cases that you, back as a Maryland State Trooper dealt with isolated within your jurisdiction, and maybe the people in the local area heard about it in the newspaper and the television news, but the world didn’t, and now the world is watching.

Len Sipes: Well, that’s a good point.

Janette Atkins: Jessica Lunsford, in a little trailer park in Florida.

Len Sipes: That’s a good point, that more and more these national, especially the cable shows, are taking on cases of interest from the victim’s perspective and pursuing it from the victim’s perspective. I agree. I’m not quite sure that I’m all that happy about the fact that they seem to be focusing on specific people, or every day, day-in day-out in our cities throughout this country, specifically African American, especially lower income African Americans are not paid any attention to, because the great bulk of the victimization is within our urban areas, and in many cases within the African American community, but that’s another story for another day. The larger issue here is that we seem to be growing little bit by little bit through a constitutional amendment or state constitutional amendments, or by media interest, or by just the pure human interest on the part of law enforcement personnel, we seem to be inching to a greater sense that the victim needs to be honored – not honored, respected in terms of their role within the criminal justice system, and the victim needs to be protected.

Will Marling: Yeah. And Leonard, if I could speak to one issue too that I thought of, sometimes it’s contrasted between defendants’ rights and victims’ rights, and so there’s this kind of lore that’s put out there, and I’m not sure who, maybe defense attorneys or others, who say, “Well, if we enhance victims’ rights, then we’re going to diminished the accused rights,” and the fact is, it’s not true. You can have both. You can respect the rights of victims, and also respect the rights of the accused, due process, and so on, but what we need to do is emphasize the enforcement of those rights as well, and some are working hard to do that. You know, the example I gave you represents the fact, you can have all kinds of constitutional amendments, but if nobody’s protecting and enforcing those rights, then this poor woman, she has no place to turn.

Len Sipes: I did a program on victim assistance, and specifically within the Washington D.C. area, and I turned to the people who were advocates from the prosecutor’s office, and from my agency, and I said, “How many times do you have to remind those of us in the criminal justice system, the bureaucrats, that a constitutional amendment does exist?” It’s not a matter of do we or don’t we, we are required by law to provide these services to victims and to respect victims in terms of every process of the adjudicative process. Every part of the adjudicative process.

Will Marling: That’s exactly right.

Janette Atkins: [overlapping voices 24:58] victims that are actually getting counsel and actually looking for somebody to do something when those rights are violated, and Will’s absolutely right, many of the constitutional amendments, and even the state statutes, there’s no real consequence if they are violated, but we were just now seeing victims who, there are attorneys out there who will represent their interests.

Len Sipes: And I don’t, and before ending the program, because we’re into our final 5 minutes of the program, I do want to emphasize that things have changed significantly. I don’t want anybody listening to this program to be scared from contacting the criminal justice system. I want them to contact the criminal justice system, and if they feel that they’re not getting their due sense of respect, that there’s somebody, specifically the victims advocates within every law enforcement agency in this country, practically, there’s somebody there who will take their case, take their point of view, and advocate for them, correct?

Will Marling: Yes, that’s correct.

Janette Atkins: Yes, in many law enforcement programs, and then also prosecutors or DA’s offices, states’ attorneys’ offices, even in the municipal or city programs, there are many, many victims’ assistance programs, and that’s where I would start if I was them. I don’t want to leave people, your listeners, that there is a horrible void in this country when it comes to victims’ assistance, and people are not getting the services, and they can’t trust the criminal justice system, because I have seen it evolve over almost 30 years, and it is much, much better than it used to be, and there are, victims’ assistance programs are much more common now than when I started in this field. You are hard pressed to find one, particularly a system based program. So you’re absolutely right, Leonard, in saying that people should not be afraid, they should call, if they don’t know who to call, they can start with NOVA, and NOVA will guide them to their local resources.

Len Sipes: 1-800-TRY-NOVA, 1-800-TRY-NOVA, or the website, www-dot try, T-R-Y N-O-V-A, dot-org, that would be the place that they would turn to, so I’m feeling guilty. There’s part of me that has a historical point of view that’s always been outraged in terms of how victims of crime are treated, but there’s also a side of me that says things have improved dramatically, and there are people within every bureaucracy that are empowered to go to bat for them, and empowered to fight for them if they feel that they have been mistreated.

Will Marling: Yep, you’re exactly right. I’m glad you have the perspective that you have, it’s an informed perspective, and you know, it’s something we’re trying to make people aware of. We sometimes do advocate directly for people with law enforcement for people, if they have a problem, I can call, I know how to talk the language a bit, and so those kind of things, we can do for people.

Len Sipes: And I think a call from NOVA is impressive enough. I mean, the National Organization for Victim Assistance has been around for how many years, Will?

Will Marling: Well, since 1975, actually.

Len Sipes: 1975, and you’ve been around the block, you’ve been established, you know how to work with the criminal justice system, but the criminal justice system, nobody likes to get a call from NOVA, because we all know who you are, and nobody is, because when you hear that NOVA is on the line, you say, “Uh oh, who has mistreated who?” Right, Janette?

Janette Atkins: That’s very true! And people can get the peer pressure from a national organization, or a state attorney general’s office, for example, or it always helps if the victim is just totally exhausted and not getting the assistance he or she needs, the news media can really help them as well. People, our elected officials don’t want to have the news media knocking on their door either.

Len Sipes: I remember talking to a woman one time who went to her state senator, and her state senator stopped whatever she was doing, picked up that phone, and called that chief of police for that jurisdiction and simply said, “I never, ever, ever want to hear something like this happening to my constituents again, and I want to meet with you personally on this issue, and I want this case taken care of!” And guess what? It was, pretty quickly. So there are ways that people can employ leverage to get what they need in the criminal justice system, but again, I do want to emphasize that there are individuals within every law enforcement agency in the country, just about, who are there to protect you, and you do have a constitutional right to make sure that your rights are respected, and there is a federal constitutional amendment to make sure that you do have access to services and get the respect from the criminal justice system. So with that in mind, I just wanted to say thank you today to our guests, Will Marling, the executive director for the National Organization of Victim Assistance at 1-800-TRY-NOVA, 1-800-TRY-NOVA, the website is www.trynova.org. We’ve also had at our microphones today, Janette Atkins, she is the administrator, the Green County Prosecutor’s Office in Xenia, Ohio, and to both of you, in the final seconds we have left, anything that I’ve left out?

Will Marling: I don’t think so. You’ve covered quite a bit. We really appreciate you.

Janette Atkins: Yes, it’s been a pleasure. We appreciate you bringing this kind of information to your listeners.

Will Marling: Absolutely.

Janette Atkins: The key is that this is the first of six programs we’re going to be doing with the National Association of Victim Assistance over the next year, and we’re going to be looking at victims’ issues in, I think, minute detail to see how we in the criminal justice system can improve. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. This is D.C. Public Safety. You can contact me, Leonard Sipes, at Leonard Sipes, L-E-O-N-A-R-D dot S-I-P-E-S, @csosa.gov. Please have yourselves a very pleasant day.

– Audio ends –

Meta terms: victims, crime victims, victim’s rights, violence, violence reduction, violence prevention, crime, criminals, criminal justice, prison, incarceration, parole, probation, corrections

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