Helping victims prevents crime

Our view: Baltimore’s efforts to assess domestic violence, shooting victims must be expanded

April 19, 2010

Since 1994, Maryland's constitution has required that victims of crime "be treated by agents of the state with dignity, respect, and sensitivity during all phases of the criminal justice process." It is the final article in the state's Declaration of Rights, just after the provision guaranteeing that equal rights under the law cannot be abridged because of one's sex. It has led to important advances in Maryland law to prevent the victim from being forgotten in the criminal justice system; not only does Maryland have a fund to compensate crime victims, but state law also requires that crime victims must be notified of court dates related to their cases, and they must be consulted by prosecutors if they decide to drop charges. Victims have rights to testify at parole hearings and to have a voice in hearings to reduce a perpetrator's sentence.

Monday marks the beginning of National Crime Victim Awareness week, and this year's event comes at a time when law enforcement officials are changing the way Maryland, and particularly Baltimore, looks at the role of victims in the justice system.

The state is working to expand its notification system so that victims will know when a protective order has been served, when probation violation hearings are taking place, or when other changes in a case occur. But perhaps the most important change in the way victims are treated is a philosophical one. Law enforcement agencies in Maryland are realizing that going beyond the rights victims are afforded under the constitution and state law can be a crucial crime-prevention strategy.

Two new programs in Baltimore illustrate the shift. In the Northern and Northeastern districts, police have begun a pilot program to assess the risk that victims of domestic violence could be subject to further harm or death at the hands of their abusers. Officers are given a questionnaire, developed from a national model in conjunction with the House of Ruth, that they administer to victims when they are called to the scene for a report of domestic violence. The completed forms are sent to the House of Ruth within 24 hours, and workers there evaluate the risk of further harm to the victim. They then contact the victim to offer services.

So far, about a quarter of the women contacted by the House of Ruth have gotten services, and in five cases, officers have found situations so dire that they immediately escorted the victims to shelters. The program is going well enough that the department is looking to expand it to a third district.

In a second program, a federal grant has funded a part-time victim advocate, a social worker who focuses on providing services to crime victims or witnesses who are relocated because of safety concerns, and on outreach to children who are victims of nonfatal shootings. The first is important because victims and witnesses who aren't given such support can become intimidated and fail to show up or provide effective testimony at trial. The second is important because of the fact that people who are shot once, particularly at an early age, are at extremely high risk for being shot again or committing acts of violence themselves.

Other jurisdictions, particularly Montgomery County, already have extensive victim outreach programs, and the O'Malley administration is working to expand them elsewhere. But they are most crucial in Baltimore, and as promising as these pilot programs are, they aren't enough. It is difficult when the city is in the midst of a budget crisis to demand more funding for them, but they are essential, not just because they're the right thing to do but because they are a key step to breaking the cycle of violence in the community.

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