Giving victims a voice (without saying a word)

    I served as the only victim assistance coordinator (VAC) in the Lamb County and District Attorney’s Office for more than 20 years before moving to the CDA’s Office in Lubbock County. I went from working closely with just two judges in Lamb County, both of whom I knew personally, to dealing with 14 judges in Lubbock, none of whom I knew.
    I’ve been in the Lubbock office for about two years now, and at the beginning of my tenure I served on Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Victims Services’ Victim Impact Statement Revision Committee. This committee meets every two years to discuss changes to the Victim Impact Statement (VIS), a written form sent to victims of certain crimes, which they can fill out so that prosecutors, judges, the probation department, and finally TDCJ have a sense of how a crime has affected their lives.

Two main takeaways
Serving on the revision committee was eye-opening. For one thing, the return rate for the VISes we sent to crime victims was dismal. Early in the revision committee’s work, we examined the statistics for the previous biennium’s VISes, which showed how many forms are sent to crime victims, how many are returned to the prosecutor’s office, and how many then go to judges, probation, and TDCJ. The numbers got smaller and smaller as the timeline went on, and I was determined that we do something in our office to get a better return rate on our VISes. We have since set up a system where each VAC in our office takes a turn to make follow-up calls two or three weeks after we send out the VISes to gently remind victims how important these forms are and to ask them to please fill them out and send them in. It’s been extremely beneficial in getting people to return the forms.
    Some of them come back with really heart-wrenching stories. So much of the time we’ll look at, say, an assault case, and it looks pretty simple when we read the offense report. But then when we call the victim to talk about it or we get the VIS back, we find out there’s way more to it than just a black eye or some injuries. Maybe the assault made the victim miss work, lose her car, or get Child Protective Services involved in the family. There is often lots more than what the responding officer includes in his initial offense report, and sometimes VISes give us the background of the story.
    VISes are meant to go from the prosecutor’s office, then to the judge, then to the probation department, and finally to TDCJ. It’s supposed to follow the offender, in other words, wherever he goes so that authorities at each stop in the system can “hear” from the crime victim. Our office had been scanning the VISes when we received them from victims and putting them in the appropriate case files, but the forms hadn’t been getting into the hands of the local judges, and we needed to increase the number of VISes furnished to probation and to TDCJ. Our office started to clearly label the VISes and have the prosecutors hand them directly to the judges in each case.

Filling in the judges
To explain our new procedure to the judges, my coworkers, Lois Carmichael and domestic violence attorney Jennifer Slack, helped me search for the best way to give all 14 of the judges the same information at the same time. We discovered that they hold a weekly meeting where they discuss the business of the courthouse, and I requested to be placed on the agenda of a future meeting so I could address all of the judges at once. It took two months for various scheduling reasons, but I finally had my chance.
    We prepared a packet for my presentation and brought enough copies for each judge. (You can download a copy of my notes at www .tdcaa.com.) The packet explained what a VIS is and the process it should go through, and it included a blank VIS, a copy of the Crime Victims’ Rights we send to crime victims, and a photocopy of Chapter 56 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure outlining crime victims’ rights. As I gave my presentation to the judges, a couple of them told me that they were unfamiliar with the VIS—one even said he’d never seen one before, and another asked if the VIS is the same as the oral allocution.
    It turns out that Lubbock County judges were accustomed to crime victims giving oral allocutions at guilty pleas or at sentencing, but VISes were unfamiliar. The only input they’d had from crime victims who didn’t testify in court was from oral allocutions, and a recent case had ruffled some feathers. We’d just completed a very difficult, long-delayed trial where emotions on both sides ran high. At sentencing, the adult son of a deceased victim gave an oral allocution that included ugly language and that verbally attacked the defense attorney. Defense attorneys voiced their complaints of the allocution to the judges, so both the defense attorneys in town and the judges were upset.
    I explained that the VIS is different from an allocution. While an allocution is oral and is given only when a crime victim can attend a guilty plea or the sentencing portion of a trial, the VIS is a written form that crime victims can fill out and return. I told the judges that the VISes would really help them “hear” from every victim—even those who can’t make it to a trial or who don’t want to stand up and give an oral allocution in court.
    The judges’ response was extremely receptive to the “new” VIS, and they are grateful to know how a crime has affected the victims in any given case. I myself am glad that more victims are returning the VISes we send out and that the judges are able to consider these written statements.