Reaching out Officials 'Extending Vision' during Crime Victims Week


By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Most people know that those accused in criminal trials have a number of legal rights, and some would say they have more rights than the people they have harmed.

But fewer citizens know that victims of crime have rights, too. And to push awareness of that, the week of April 22 kicked off "National Crime Victims' Rights Week" in communities across America to not only honor those victims, but to recognize the progress in advancing those rights under the law.

The theme of this year's event is "Extending the Vision: Reaching Every Victim."

During the week, prosecutors in all 83 Michigan counties are holding events recognizing victims of crime and their hard-fought rights. Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton is one of those people who takes that theme very seriously.

"The prosecution of crime is one of our most important functions," Leyton said "But in my view, as prosecutor of this county, providing crime victims with the rights they are entitled to is right there at the top of my obligations and duties," he said. "And it's a very, very important part of any prosecutor's job."

Leyton said for years, legal rights addressed the defendants more then their victims.

"Victims were just seen as witnesses, if they even survived the crime," Leyton said. "They had to come to court, testify, and then go on their way.

"And nobody ever recognized the trauma that they suffered by not only being the victim of a crime, but re-traumatized because nobody would help them through the court system. Unless you work in it, or unless you are a lawyer trained in it, it's like another world to most people," Leyton said.

One of the first people to recognize that victims of crime were being ignored was William Van Regenmorter. While running for state representative, he met two women whose husbands had been killed in drunk driving crashes, and the judge and prosecutor in the case showed no sympathy for their plight.

Van Regenmorter believed that was the wrong way to treat people who were victimized by a crime, and vowed to create a "Bill of Rights" for crime victims in Michigan. After he was elected, he authored the Crime Victim's Rights Act in 1985, which spelled out a number of protections for victims of state law crimes. Soon other states, and the federal system, adopted similar measures.

He also wrote a state constitutional amendment that was approved by voters and was added to the state Constitution in 1988. In his political career, and for his work in this area, Van Regenmorter has been named "Legislator of the Year" eight times in Michigan.

"He was an advocate for victims' rights, and that's why they named the act after him," Leyton said. "He gave rights to victims that they never had before, and it became one of the most all-encompassing legal rights act in the country."

Once victims are identified and fill out a form for notification, they gain a number of rights. During prosecution of the case, victims will receive notice of any court proceedings; be able to talk with the prosecuting attorney before and during any trial; receive notice if the defendant escapes custody while awaiting trial; and be informed of any conviction.

The victim also will be able to have a written impact statement included in the pre-sentence report and make an oral statement at sentencing.

After the defendant is sentenced, victims will be notified where the person(s) will be confined; of any scheduled release date or transfer to a minimum security facility or community residential program or some other type of half-way house; any reduction in sentence as a result of "good time" credit; any escape from custody; to address the parole board officials before the hearing and be notified of its decision; and to be notified prior to the defendants release from prison or any hearing regarding a reprieve, commutation or pardon of sentence by the Governor.

Leyton said his victims' witness advocates identify the victims at the earliest possible court hearing, and start with the basics.

"Most people don't even know where the courthouse is, so we start by telling them where the courthouse is, where to park their car, what courtroom they need to go to, what to anticipate will occur at the particular court hearing and stage of the litigation," he said. "Most people don't have any idea what they're going to go through, and if they come into this world not knowing, they're further traumatized."

But it's a necessary job that has become more difficult with budget cuts in prosecutor's office across the state. In Genesee County alone, Leyton said his office handles 6,000 cases each year that require victim advocacy. He has two advocates. Multiply that by the number of cases in Michigan, and the answer is obvious.

"It's overwhelming," Leyton said. "But I think we do it very well with very limited resources."

This year's theme, to extend the vision and reach every victim, "is an outreach issue," Leyton said.

"We want to get the word out to those in the community who are victims, who have cases in the system, that they have these rights," he said. "We want as many people as possible to know that these rights exist and they are entitled to them, and it's our obligation to spread the word."

Leyton said informing victims of their rights includes directing them to places they can also get help, whether through his office, the courts, or local community, state and federal organizations.

His office does something every year during National Crime Victims' Rights Week, and this year a table was set up in the Courtland Mall in Burton, aided by a grant from the Michigan Crime Victim Services Commission.

On April 22, that table was manned by Crystal Reinert and Cheryl St. Charles, two interns in the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office majoring in social work at Saginaw Valley State University.

"We've had a good handful of people walk by and ask questions, and we even had several victims of crime come up and talk to us about that," Reinert said.

St. Charles said one victim had been victimized by bad checks.

"He wanted to know what else he needs to do, so we explained the process, and what to expect," she said.

The table was filled with brochures explaining victims' rights, including magnets, pens and even small candies. The table was open from noon to 5 p.m.

"We just want the general population know they have rights," St. Charles said.

Lisa D. Baker, one of two victim witness advocates for the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office, said people just don't know what's out there for them as victims.

"They've been victimized, and they don't know who to call or where to get help," she said. "There are all kinds of things we can provide."

Advocates can explain the process, help with written and oral impact statements, and direct them to other services available under the law, including a state agency that can help in getting restitution.

"But a big part was having the prosecutor consult with the victims, and let them know what's happening with the case, the strengths and weaknesses of the case," Baker said. "In the past, victims were never notified, and they'd find out things by reading about it in the newspaper."

But not all victims can be found, she said. Some move from fear of retaliation, some may not receive a subpoena for court because they are not a witness to the crime, or may have fallen through a crack. Baker said the goal of this event is also to reach those people who have not been contacted by the prosecutor's office.

With all those efforts, Baker still believes a number of victims do not take advantage of their legal rights and benefits.

"And that's just lack of information, and lack of understanding," she said.

And even those who do sign up and receive a packet of material in the mail are so overwhelmed by the entire process they may not take full advantage of it.

But those that do appreciate it, Baker said. As the direct link to victims, Baker sees the pain in murder cases, child abuse cases, and others, and in some cases, the process can run for years from the time the offense is committed to the time the case goes through trial and a defendant sentenced.

"That type of thing keeps the wound open and they don't have closure, and I think that having somebody keep in contact with them makes them hold on, that their case didn't get lost in the cracks," she said.

Baker said she gets satisfaction from the job.

"Without my help, a lot of victims would be lost in the dark, and I can make a difference and help them get through the system in one piece, not necessarily ever get them restored to where they were before, but ensure they don't get re-victimized by the system."

Sometimes it comes down to a simple hug from the victims' advocates to help.

"And our people deliver a lot of hugs," Leyton said. "And somebody who will listen to them."

Published: Wed, Apr 25, 2012


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