Victim alert program to expand

Service keeps track of offender's pending court dates, custody

Eight counties to join today

VINE to be available statewide by June, Townsend says

March 05, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A program that alerts crime victims to the status of offenders as they move through the criminal justice system is about to go statewide.

State officials plan to announce today that eight more counties are going "on line" with the victim notification program, joining Montgomery and Carroll counties, which launched pilot programs in 1998.

The program -- Victim Identification and Notification Everyday service -- keeps crime victims informed of an offender's custody status and pending court dates and hearings.

The program will be available throughout the rest of the state by June at a cost of $500,000, according to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

She said the service provides comfort to crime victims who can call a 24-hour hot line to find out an offender's custody status or where a case stands in court.

Victims who register also get an automated phone call notifying them when an offender is moved, released or comes up for parole.

"It's critical because it gives victims a real sense of peace of mind," Townsend said. "It means they can find out where the offender is and what's happening, so they aren't surprised."

Roberta Roper, chairwoman of the state Board of Victim Services and a longtime advocate for victims' rights, described the notification system as "a great enhancement to existing laws" in Maryland.

Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon said the criminal justice system has not always been good at addressing the concerns of victims.

"It's their [victims'] life experience," she said. "For them to know what's happening is critical to their sense of well-being."

Kathleen B. Schroeder of Carroll County said the system has eased her fears since she was assaulted in her home by a former boyfriend in September 1999.

She said she calls the VINE number often to check on the custody status of the man, who was later jailed on unrelated charges.

"I go to bed now without my lights on," Schroeder said. "I call it all the time, just for that peace of mind of knowing he is incarcerated."

Quick notification

Shirley Haas, director of Carrroll County's victim assistance program, said VINE is particularly helpful for victims of domestic violence or rape who know their assailants and fear that they will return to harm them.

"If for some reason this person is released or transferred to another facility, the victim gets notified within a half-hour, usually within 10 minutes," Haas said. "That has probably been the biggest plus."

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said the notification system isn't perfect, but it keeps victims informed so they can be alert and take precautions when an offender is being released.

"Any time we can help victims, we're doing something positive," Gansler said. "We need to be much more aware of victims and their sufferings and their angst."

Widely used

VINE was set up by Appris Inc., a Louisville, Ky.-based company.

Richard A. Jones, a manager with Appris, said the service is being used in 750 communities in 35 states.

Maryland is among nine states that will offer it statewide, and one of three that includes information about pending court dates and hearings, he said.

Officials with Townsend's office said more than 8,500 crime victims in Mongtomery and Carroll counties registered last year to receive notification of the custody status of offenders through VINE.

The eight counties that have joined the VINE system are Howard, Baltimore, St. Mary's, Worcester, Wicomico, Kent, Dorchester and Queen Anne's.

Although crime victims in those counties can sign up for notification about the custody status of an offender now, it will be a few more weeks before information about court hearings and proceedings is available, according to Townsend's office.

Baltimore County has had the court notification element of the VINE system since April 1999 but had not included an offender's custody status.

Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

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