As I write, Austin is entering its 63rd day of 100-degree-plus heat; thoughts of spontaneous human combustion come to mind. Before I had the honor of working in the offices of Carol S. Vance and John B. Holmes Jr., my introduction to the legal system came with reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. As a kid, I was fascinated by the all the characters, most notably a legal system that took years to get through and consumed men and money. My favorite human character, the one who had the evidence that would have solved the case, spontaneously combusted.
With this heat it is easy to imagine walking outside and bursting into flames. But have you come close to spontaneously combusting in your office? Help is on the way.
At this year’s Key Personnel and Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar (November 2–4 at the Westin Oaks Hotel in Houston), we are offering a slate of workshops on understanding and working with different personalities along with hands-on, problem-solving solutions. Prosecutor staff members work with law enforcement, lawyers, judges, and corrections officers in the office and with medical personnel, mental health professionals, and non-profit advocates outside of the office. How best to communicate with all to get the job done? Find out by joining us in November.
We will also have a legislative update, family violence and protective order information, and a post-adjudication track with representatives from the Board of Pardons & Paroles and TDCJ Victim Services. What’s the difference between the judgment and the pen packet? Who does what? Where does it go? Find out this and more by registering now at www.tdcaa.com.
Plea of guilty notification
The Texas Legislature was busy last session, and there’s lot to report. If you haven’t attended a TDCAA Legislative Update, you can get information on the workshop and materials here: www.tdcaa.com/training/leg-islative-update-including-3-hours-tcleose-3182-credit. Most pertinent to readers of this Victim Services column are the changes made by SB 1010 to Art. 56.08 (Notification of Rights by Attorney Representing the State) and Art 26.13 (Plea of Guilty) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. “As far as reasonably practical,” prosecutors are now required to give the victim of felony and misdemeanor crimes involving personal injury or death, notice of the existence and terms of any plea bargain agreement to be presented to the court. This new duty applies regardless of whether the victim requests that information (as previously required). The bill also requires that a victim be informed by the prosecutor that the court must verify this notice before accepting any eventual plea agreement in the case. This change applies to a plea bargain in those cases involving personal injury or death presented to the court on or after September 1, 2011. The law already requires the judge to ask if a victim impact statement has been returned and ask for a copy of the statement; now the court shall inquire if the State has given notice of the existence and terms of a plea bargain to the victim.
How to get this word to victims along with the fact that they need to provide contact information and updates to the prosecutor so that they can be reached? Will you put it in the introductory notice that you are required to send no later than the 10th day after the date an indictment or information is returned [per Art. 56.08(a)]? Will your office tag those cases and assign a VAC or investigator to maintain contact? Will you develop a new software program? Let us know your solutions to this new legislative requirement.
Victim Impact Statement (VIS) revision
As required by statute in odd-numbered years [per Art. 56.03(h)], the VIS form and reporting procedure are under revision. TDCJ Victim Services Division held revision committee meetings this summer to meet the December 1 deadline. TDCAA Victim Services Board Members Blanca Burciaga (Tarrant County), Nancy Ghigna (Montgomery County), Chair Cyndi Jahn (Bexar County), and Jill McAfee (Bell County) participated along with VACs Trinity Grogan and Rita Thomas (Corryell County), Ellen Halbert (Travis County), Wanda Ivicic and Irene Odom (Williamson County), Chris Jenkins and Kenda Zimmerman (Dallas County), and Cheryl Williams (Anderson County). The meetings have been very informative as each jurisdiction brings different implementation procedures to the table and everyone learns from one another.
TDCAA was there from the beginning. The first VIS development meeting was held on August 21, 1985, in Austin. Former TDCAA Director Steve Capelle (now Travis County First Assistant DA), ADA Bert Graham and VAC Gail O’Brien (Harris County), ADA Rider Scott (Dallas), and I (as the director of the Governor’s Crime Victim Clearinghouse) were all present. Rider proposed the confidential protections for victim contact information. The first Clearinghouse Legislative Report on the VIS (1987) noted many of the same issues that this year’s committee recognized: the need for awareness by prosecution, the courts, and corrections; training and follow-up; designating “who’s on first” for collecting the commitment papers; and most importantly an interagency procedure gap. We will be posting the revised VIS and accompanying report form on our website.
The Office of Justice Programs has launched CrimeSolutions.gov, a website to help practitioners and policymakers understand what works in justice-related programs and practices. It includes information about over 150 programs (including a page with over a dozen related to victims!) that are rated to indicate if a program meets its goals. This new resource for those of you interested in evidence-based practices can be accessed at www.crimesolutions.gov.
Please don’t spontaneously combust. At least not before you send in your ideas, suggestions, and comments to me at mcdaniel at tdcaa dot com.