A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 25, 1999
CONTACT: Tom Nolan (617) 722-2230 e-mail: Thomas.Nolan@state.ma.us
Life After The Crime: Advocating For Our Victims
Her voice trembled with each word spoken and her eyes jetted back and
forth as she recounted each horrifying detail of the near-deadly assault
that she endured at the hands of her abusive husband some years ago. I
could hardly stomach the pictures she handed to me depicting her disfigured
body, torn and bloodied from the severe beating she suffered. This was by
no means an ordinary meeting with and ordinary constituent. This was a
woman whose life had been turned upside down three summers ago, a victim to
her husband's rage. Now she stood before me looking for assistance as her
husband awaits his upcoming parole hearing.
Each day we pick up our newspapers or turn on our television sets,
only to be
struck by a barrage of shocking events detailing the daily violent crimes
committed in our or some other nearby state. The reporters often provide
lengthy descriptions of the crime and the state of the investigation.
Often times, however, we learn nothing of the victim beyond the brief,
at-the-scene, one sentence reaction to the ill-advised "how do you feel?"
inquiry by an overzealous reporter looking for a story. With the passage
of time, the public interest wanes and the crime and all its atrocious
facts, slips into history -- except for the victims who are often left to
deal with physical and emotional scars.
After calming the fears of the woman in my district office, I,
coincidentally enough, traveled to Boston to join several other legislative
leaders, judges, law enforcement officials and administrative directors
from across the Northeast to discuss policies to improve the management of
victim services and the protection of victim rights. The conference,
sponsored by the Council of State Governments Eastern Region, focused
primarily on addressing concerns raised by an extensive survey of crime
victims and the general public of nine states, including Massachusetts,
over the summer. Not surprisingly, many victims and their relatives
indicated that they are most concerned with notification procedures and the
insecurity they feel after having been victimized. Through the conference,
leaders from these states were able to brainstorm about ways to improve
victim advocacy and overcome some of the common obstacles that often
disrupt those efforts.
Although the defendant grabs most of the headlines, Massachusetts has
significant strides to focus greater attention on the victims. As early as
1983, the Commonwealth established a set of rights for victims and
witnesses of crimes, codified in Chapter 258B of the General Laws. The
Victim Bill of Rights, as it is often referred, affords victims of violent
crimes a meaningful role in the criminal justice system by providing, among
other things, the right to be present at all court proceedings; to be
informed by the prosecutor of the process; to confer with the prosecutor at
various stages; and to give a statement at the time of sentencing. The
Victim Bill of Rights goes a long way towards recognizing that part of the
healing process is to provide victims the opportunity to have their day in
court. It is a recognition that the commission of a violent crime is more
than a transgression against a law, but is a violation of someone else's
The ability to participate in the judicial process provides some of
the salve, but only addresses the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that
even after a conviction, the crime does not disappear for the victim. In
an effort to meet the needs of crime victims, the state established the
Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA). MOVA, which falls under
the jurisdiction of the Victim and Witness Assistance Board, is an
independent state agency responsible for upholding the Victim Bill of
Rights. Its stated mission is to serve and protect the rights of victims
of violent crimes by providing personal support, technical guidance and
notification to victims and witnesses through the criminal justice process.
MOVA also lobbies tirelessly to create more awareness about the concerns
of victims through outreach campaigns and legislation.
Working hand in glove with MOVA, the Massachusetts Department of
established its Victim Service Unit (VSU) in 1994, to provide victims with
information, emotional support, crisis intervention, safety planning and
referral services. Most Sheriff's Departments have followed DOC's lead by
appointing victim advocates in their departments to address pre- and
post-conviction needs of their victims. With such commendable goals at
stake, it is important that the VSU be given support to meet the critical
needs of every victim of violent crime.
Recognizing the importance of the services provided by VSU, I fought
to secure $150,000 during the FY99 debates to assist in the acquisition and
training of five new Victims Advocates for the Department of Correction.
These new advocates are currently undergoing extensive training and are
expected to spearhead the efforts of DOC to improve services to their
victims. Through the Herculean efforts and innovation of Winchester's own
Allison Price, the VSU Director, the program is expanding by leaps and
bounds. The addition of these highly qualified counselors, coupled with
the dynamic leadership and direction and Ms. Price, should facilitate the
healing process for a number of victims of violent crime.
In addition to experiencing serious emotional and physical damage,
victims are often faced with consequential damages including funeral,
medical and counseling expenses as well as lost wages. Although generally
overlooked by the media, these expenses exacerbate what is already a very
traumatic experience, and for some, create additional financial burdens.
The Victim and Witness Assistance Fund was established to help defray some
of these unexpected costs.
Just as important as the establishment of this Fund, is the
requirement that convicted defendants be forced to contribute to the Fund
and to cover these costs incurred by the victims of their crimes. That is
why I am a supporter of the Prison Industry Enhancement Program (PIE) that
would put more prisoners to work. That is also why I re-filed legislation
to prevent criminals from profiting from the publication of their crimes.
In short, the bill authorizes a court to impose as a condition to a
criminal's sentence, probation or parole the restriction against entering
any profit-oriented contract for the publication of the facts surrounding
their crime. This approach has been held valid by the Massachusetts
Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Powers, which recognized that
convicted persons who remain in jail, on probation or on parole, relinquish
(to some degree) certain constitutionally protected rights.
The impact of crime is devastating to its victims on so many levels,
requiring a tremendous amount of resources and support. The conference I
attended last week reaffirmed this reality. In the course of the
discussions, however, I was also reminded about the many resources we have
available in our state to assist victims. Yet it is shocking to realize
how little some people know about the help and programs that are currently
in place. I am proud to have been such an important factor in the
expansion of the VSU at the DOC, and I look forward to seeing its continued
development so that all victims under its jurisdiction receive the proper
counseling and assistance.
As a society, we must continue to realize that more important than the
grotesque or disturbing facts reported by the media, are the fears and
lasting destruction that remain with the victim. Last Friday, I was made
keenly aware of those fears. If the woman ever truly recovers and leads a
productive, fruitful life without the constant fear of attack, perhaps we
as a people will have made a colossal leap forward in prioritizing where
and to whom our limited state resources are best served. By placing
greater focus on the needs of the victims, whether through enhanced
awareness, increased public support or legislation, persons like her will
be able to concentrate on their recovery, rather than remain wounded by the
scars of crime.