Statement On National Crime Victims’ Rights Week

This past Sunday marked the start of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.  Since 1981, people across the Nation have observed this week with candlelight vigils and public rallies to renew our commitment to crime victims and their families.  It is vitally important that we recognize the needs of crime victims and their family members, and work together to promote victims’ rights and services.

My involvement with crime victims began more than three decades ago when I served as State’s Attorney in Chittenden County, Vermont, and witnessed first-hand how crime can devastate victims’ lives.  I have worked ever since to ensure that the criminal justice system is one that respects the rights and dignity of victims of crime, rather than one that presents additional ordeals for those already victimized.

I was honored to support the passage of the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA), which has been the principal means by which the Federal Government has supported essential services for crime victims and their families.  This critical piece of legislation provides grants for direct services to victims, such as state crime victim compensation programs, emergency shelters, crisis intervention, counseling, and assistance in participating in the criminal justice system.  These services are entirely funded from a reserve fund created from criminal fines and penalties, and are provided without a single dime of funding from Federal taxpayers.

I have worked hard over the years to protect the Crime Victims Fund.  State victim compensation and assistance programs serve nearly four million crime victims each year, including victims of violent crime, domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, elder abuse, and drunk driving.  Several years ago, we made sure the Fund had a “rainy day” capacity so that in lean years, victims and their advocates would not have to worry that the Crime Victims Fund would run out of money, leaving them stranded.  More recently, an annual cap has been set on the level of funding to be spent from the fund in a given year.  When this cap was established, and when President Bush then sought to empty the Crime Victims Fund of unexpended funds, I joined with Senator Crapo and others from both political parties to make sure that the Crime Victims Fund was preserved.  These resources are appropriately set aside to assist victims of crime and their families.  We have had to work hard to protect the Crime Victims Fund, and I have consistently supported raising the spending cap to allow more money out of the fund and into the field.  

As we observe Crime Victims’ Rights Week, I would like to highlight a program in Vermont that has developed a unique and innovative approach to supporting victims of crime.  In 2006, I was pleased to help the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services secure funding to design and implement the Burlington Parallel Justice Project.  This program addresses the limitations of traditional criminal justice and restorative justice models, and represents a collaborative approach to repair the harm caused by crime.  Under this program representatives from different sectors of the community, from government to law enforcement to service providers to local business, come together to address the needs of crime victims in a comprehensive manner. 

The concept of parallel justice was developed by Susan Herman, a former executive director of the National Center for Crime Victims, who emphasized the importance of having a victim-driven path through the criminal justice system.  With the help of Susan and the National Center for Crime Victims, the Vermont Center for Crime Victims Services, the Burlington Community Justice Center and the Burlington Police Department implemented her vision in their community by forming a Parallel Justice Commission.  The Commission responds to the needs of victims by working with local service providers and others to address those needs, whether it is emotional support, medical cost assistance, or property repair.  By hearing from victims about their experiences with the criminal justice system, they also bring about systemic change where needed.  The result is a comprehensive approach to victim assistance that enhances the relationships between different parts of the community and builds safer and stronger neighborhoods.

The Burlington Parallel Justice Project is a national demonstration project for parallel justice and has been able to thrive and expand due to funding from VOCA assistance grants.  Last month, Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling, a member of the Parallel Justice Commission, testified before the Senate Judiciary committee about innovative crime reduction strategies.  He spoke about the success of the Parallel Justice program as an example of a community policing model and emphasized that developing innovative and effective strategies will be increasingly crucial to effective public safety.  I could not agree more. I have often advocated for Federal support of meaningful, community-based solutions to crime and other issues we face in Vermont and across the nation. 

Both Congress and the States have become more sensitive to the rights of crime victims since I was a prosecutor.  We have greatly improved our crime victims’ assistance programs and made advances in recognizing crime victims’ rights.  But we still have more to do.  As we observe National Crime Victims’ Rights week this year, we must renew our national commitment to help crime victims by supporting programs like the Parallel Justice Project, and protecting the Crime Victims Fund. 

I want to commend and thank Judy Rex, Karen Tronsgard-Scott, and the many other victims’ advocates and service providers in Vermont and across the country who show their dedication every day of the year to crime victims.   I am thankful for their advice and insights over the years, and I look forward to continuing our work to address the needs of victims everywhere.

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