A hearing Wednesday organized by the State Board of Victim Services could lead to more support for local crime victims, who some say are often victimized again as their cases proceed through the criminal justice system.
The hearing, before five board representatives at the Howard Building in Ellicott City, was the 10th in a series that began last April to assess the needs of crime victims throughout 24 jurisdictions in Maryland.
Of those jurisdictions, only 15 offer victim services units. And out of those 15, Howard County ranks lowest in staffing.
Wednesday's hearing, which drew about 25 people, addressed the needs of crime victims in Howard, Carroll and Frederick counties.
After the finalhearing, scheduled next month in Baltimore County, recommendations based on testimony of victims and law-enforcement agencies will be issued to each jurisdiction.
"We want to bring to the attention of the powers that be the needs of crime victims," said Cassie Puls, StateVictims Services coordinator for the Attorney General's Office.
Services provided by the agency include notification of the status of the case; explanation of the judicial process; referrals to support and counseling agencies and to the state crime compensation board; accompaniment to court; and a separate waiting area in the courthouse for victims and witnesses.
Two people, working part-time out of the state's attorney's office, staff Howard County's unit.
But Puls, who lives in Ellicott City, says the board generally recommends at least two full-time staffers in smaller jurisdictions, like Howard County, and five to six in larger ones.
Anne Arundel County's unit, forexample, has about 11 people, while Frederick County has four and Carroll County has two.
Puls explained that as soon as a case comes into the state's attorney's office, a letter should be sent to the victim/witness. "But it doesn't happen in Howard County," Puls said, because of limited manpower.
Betsy Rudo, coordinator for the victim/witness unit in Howard County, has served more than 750 victims of crimes of violence that have come through the state's attorney's officeover the past year.
Her office tries to send letters to keep victims informed of all developments in their cases, but the lack of manpower makes it impossible.
Rudo cannot provide direct victim services either.
"We cannot have each victim come in and go over directly with him which services are available, provide court accompaniment,go over victim impact statements, or review his rights once the felon has been convicted," she said.
Rudo is trying to get volunteers and student interns, but because of office size constraints, "there is no place to put them," she said.
The prosecution stands to benefit from informed witnesses as well, said Puls. "If your victim/witness is more informed, your case can only be better. If you don't have their cooperation, you don't have a case."
Puls said she hopes that despite the county's financial crunch, accommodations will be made.
"It's all a question of priorities. These are real people whose lives have been drastically altered because of the crime. Not to involve them in the process is insensitive and inhumane."
Police also support the idea.
Lt. Jay Zumbrun said Howard County police are committed to initiating their own victim assistance program.
"We havea long way to go," he said. "To be considered state-of-the-art, a police department must provide victims assistance services. Now we're dealing with it on a case-by-case basis, sending them to the appropriate social service agency."
In addition to small staffs of paid workers, some jurisdictions
beef up their services substantially, butcheaply, using volunteers and student interns from area colleges, said Puls.
Funding for the units may come from several sources, but the most common is from within that county's budget for its state's attorney's office. A second source is Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA. Defendants in federal cases must pay a fine, and this money is funneled to the states.
Rudo says the county's budget problems will probably keep the unit from expanding with paid workers. She is increasingly frustrated by limitations of the 4-year-old program.
"We need more help or fewer victims," said Rudo.
Shari Stoesser, victim assistance chairwoman for the Howard County chapter of MADD and a motherof a victim of a drunken-driving crash, said in the hearing that "being a victim is the most painful and confusing time of life. We strive for the best in Howard County. We want no more than any other county."