Carroll Fortunate To Have Agency Aiding Crime Witnesses

AS I SEE IT

But Limitations In Budget And Staff Restrict Assistance, Director Says

August 11, 1991|By Sharon Hornberger

As the number of violent crimes increases, so do victims' demands for some type of due-process rights.

In 1990, there were 43,978 violent crimes committed in Maryland.

All too often, the victims of those crimes are shoved aside, ignored, kept uninformed and silent -- even barred from attending criminal trials.

Those who support victims' rights tend to characterize Maryland's General Assembly as unresponsive.

However, the legislature enacted guidelines in 1986 to ensure that victims are treated withrespect and courtesy and receive notification of court and parole proceedings.

In some cases, the guidelines allow consideration of victim-impact statements at the time of sentencing.

But these are just guidelines, not rights. If these were rights, victims would have some form of redress when law enforcement and judicial personnel fail to comply.

In Carroll, we are fortunate to have the Witness Assistance Unit, formed in 1988 by State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman.

The director of the unit, Diane Jackson, said she assisted witnesses in 427 cases in 1990. The Carroll unit only is able to assist witnesses in crimes against persons, due to limited staff and budget, she said.

She and her once-a-week clerical assistant processed 3,600 letters to witnesses in 1990, including notices of trial dates, case dispositions and sentencing hearings, as well as letters advising witnesses how to contact the parole board to keep abreast of hearing dates.

The 1991 General Assembly passed a bill that will assist crime victims by creating additional revenue for witness-assistance programs around the state.

Senate Bill 253 amended the State Criminal Injuries Compensation Act to bring it into compliance with eligibility requirements mandated by 1988 amendments to the Federal Victims of Crime Act of 1984 and to guarantee that Maryland remains eligible for federal money.

The new law will add to the list of crimes for which a victim may receive compensation, including criminal acts committed in another state against a Maryland resident, drunken- or drugged-driving offenses and domestic violence.

It also expands the definition of "victim" to include a person suffering psychological injuries as a direct result of a sexual offense. In addition to the federally mandated changes, the law increases by up to two years the deadline for filing child-abuse claims.

It also allows mental health counseling in an amount up to $2,000 in the death of a crime victim.

Passage of Senate Bill 582 establishes that the Maryland Victims of Crime Fundwill be a special continuing fund, exempt from current law which requires that money not used by the end of the fiscal year be returned to the general fund.

The money may be used to assist victims or witnesses of crimes and provides funding for Carroll's Witness Assistance Unit.

The new law increases the current $15 fee that courts are required to impose on persons convicted of crimes. State Circuit Courts will impose a fee of $40, and District Courts a levy of $30.

Ofthe money collected, $20 from Circuit Court fees and $10 from District Court fees will be transferred to the Crime Victims' Fund, with the remainder going to the general fund.

Little by little, victims are changing the way the law treats them. Many of their major goals remain unmet. Victims want the law to require that they be notified about major developments in criminal proceedings. Victims and witnesses want witness-assistance units like we have in Carroll.

Mainly, victims want to be allowed to tell the court how criminal acts have affected their lives and those of their families.

Opponents of these measures argue that their implementation will mean staggering increases in the work load of law enforcement and judicial personnel and makealready-congested court dockets even more hopelessly clogged.

This is a poor excuse to deny victims some of the same rights we bend over backward to give criminals, and which also clog court dockets and increase work loads.

"I'm glad that I am here to help the victims of crime have a voice in the judicial system," Jackson said.

None of us can tell when we will be a victim of a criminal act and will also want this service available to us.

I'm glad that Jackson and the Witness Assistance Unit are here, and I'm confident that those she has assisted through the judicial process are glad she is here, too.

What's your opinion? We'd like to hear. Letters and guest columns should be typewritten and double-spaced, with letters no more than 250 words and guest columns no more than 500 words. Your full name, address and telephone numbers (home and office) must be included (for verification purposes only). Please send your comments to Letters or Guest columns, The Carroll County Sun, 15 East Main St., Westminster, Md. 21157-5052. You also may FAX your comments to us at 876-0233. We must receive them by 5 p.m. Tuesday for possible publication the following Sunday. Information: 857-0550, 876-8771 or toll-free (800) 829-8000, Ext. 6595.

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