Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates from Prepared Remarks) Victim Assistance Conference Columbus, Ohio May 15, 2002
Thank you and good afternoon. It is a pleasure and an honor to be part of what I understand is the largest state victim assistance conference in the country.
It is appropriate that we gather here to honor the victim advocates who support and seek justice for the victims of crime. Too often in the quest for justice, the rights of these Americans are overlooked. It is time -- it is past time -- to balance the scales of justice; to demand fairness and judicial integrity not just for the accused, but for the aggrieved as well.
I want to thank Attorney General Betty Montgomery for inviting me here today. Attorney General Montgomery has spent her entire career working to ensure the safety of Ohio residents and I thank her for her leadership. I thank, as well, Senators DeWine and Voinovich for their invitation to be here today and their exemplary support for the rights of victims.
Thanks also to the co-sponsors of this conference. Your organizations have made tremendous strides in protecting victims – and giving them a voice – both here in Ohio and across the nation.
Under the leadership of Governor Bob Taft, Ohio has become a champion of victims' rights initiatives. Just a few weeks ago, Governor Taft created a Victims of Crime Task Force to make recommendations on how to investigate and prosecute crimes perpetrated against mentally retarded and disabled victims.
As Governor Taft can attest, our journey to providing greater protection for crime victims has been a long one. It was more than thirty years ago that the first victim assistance programs were created in some of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in America.
In the succeeding three decades, much progress has been made. Once rare, victim assistance groups are now commonplace in towns and cities across the country. Police and the courts treat victims with greater dignity and respect. And victims are empowered by laws that ensure them access to the criminal justice system and an opportunity to be heard during key proceedings.
Much of this progress is the result of the dedication and determination of all of you in this room, as well as thousands of advocates throughout the country who work every day on behalf of crime victims. You exemplify the model of service to our nation that President Bush has challenged all Americans to emulate.
One of the highest goals I have set for the Department of Justice is to ensure that the rights of victims are recognized and protected, and that those responsible for crime are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
Victims have a right to more information, not less. So when we recovered the cockpit recorder from one of the September 11th flights, we shared it with the families of those killed.
Victims have a right to more choices, not fewer choices. So we gave the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing the option of witnessing the execution of Timothy McVeigh.
And victims have a right to more compassion. So the Special Master for the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund is working tirelessly to provide relief to those injured in the nation’s most devastating terrorist attack.
Since 1984, the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime has provided federal leadership in mobilizing our nation to improve its response to crime victims. It has awarded millions of dollars to support state and local services and compensation for crime victims. And it has supported training and other resources for criminal justice practitioners, medical personnel, faith-based organizations, and others who work with victims and their families.
Since 1984, Ohio has received over $154 million in Victims of Crime Act federal funding. Along with state dollars, these funds support 300 victim assistance programs in all 88 Ohio counties. Funds from the Office for Victims of Crime also supplement Ohio’s Crime Victim Compensation Program.
With the help of Justice Department funding, Ohio has launched a number of outstanding victim assistance programs. One example is Community Refugee and Immigration Services. Most victims served by this program are unable to speak English, are unaware of their rights, and are often unwilling to participate in the criminal justice system because of bad experiences with police and courts in their home countries. Let me give you one example.
One young woman from East Africa, living alone here in Ohio, suffered severe emotional distress after a break-in at her apartment, during which she was threatened by her attacker. Unable to understand much English, she was unsure of the intruder’s exact words. But she understood enough to know that he threatened to come back to injure or kill her.
Terrified, the young woman left her apartment, became unable to cope with every day living, and, as a result, lost her job. A bilingual worker from Community Refugee and Immigration Services learned about her case. She helped the young woman file a police report and move to a new home. She also arranged for her to receive mental health services and found her a new job. Through Community Refugee and Immigration Services, the young woman learned that there is help and hope for crime victims in Ohio.
Another impressive effort is the Domestic Violence Shelter in Mansfield. The shelter serves three counties and provides many services, from a 24-hour hotline to a first-response team.
The shelter helped one recent client escape from an 11-year abusive relationship. The victim had three children, a fourth grade education, no work experience, no other family, and no friends to rely on. She had been emotionally and financially dependent on her abusive husband. Shelter staff helped the victim to obtain financial assistance and subsidized housing, enrolled her in adult literacy classes, and found her a part-time job. Staff also helped get services for her children. The woman and her children are now happier, healthier, and free from a life of abuse.
The federal assistance provided to programs such as these in Ohio and other states has continued the progress begun by the grassroots victims movement more than 30 years ago. We must continue to build on this progress.
Last month, during National Crime Victims Rights Week, President Bush announced this administration’s support for a bipartisan Crime Victims’ Rights Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. This important amendment is sponsored by a number of Ohio’s members of Congress, including Senator Mike DeWine, Congressman Steve Chabot and Congresswoman Deborah Pryce. This amendment would provide specific rights for victims of violent crime that would be protected under the Constitution.
Our legal system properly protects the rights of the accused. However, despite the passage of more than 27,000 victims’ rights laws and 32 state constitutional amendments, the rights of victims remain inadequately protected, especially when they come into conflict with the rights of the accused.
The Crime Victims Rights Amendment would give crime victims the right to be notified, present, and heard at critical stages throughout their case. It would ensure that the victim’s views are considered and that they are treated fairly. It would promote the speedy resolution of their case, see that their safety is provided for, and help guarantee that their claims for restitution are not ignored. At the same time, the amendment would not abridge the rights of defendants or offenders, or otherwise disrupt the delicate balance of our Constitution.
Any effort to amend the Constitution must be undertaken with great care. However, this Administration believes that the specific language of this amendment strikes the proper balance in protecting victims' rights and ensuring justice for both victims and defendants. The Department of Justice is continuing to work with the Congress to help ensure the passage of this important Constitutional amendment.
The Justice Department has made the fight against crime and the protection of victims a top priority at the international, national, state, and local levels. We are dedicated to working with our state and local counterparts – as well as with private organizations and the faith-based community – to provide assistance and comfort to victims and to ensure that their rights are protected.
While government cannot offer the one thing that victims wish for most, a return to the way life was before violence intruded, government can do more than it has in the past. I want to assure you of my personal commitment, and that of the entire Justice Department, to ensure that the interests of victims and their families are put first in pursuing and securing justice.
On September 11th, our entire nation saw the agony suffered by innocent victims. We saw the devastation suffered by victims’ families, and witnessed how each and every American in this country was touched by this terrible tragedy. Today, thanks to the hundreds of individuals who, without fanfare, left their homes and jobs and went to New York City, to the Pentagon, and to the site of the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania to provide comfort and assistance to the victims and their families, our nation is on the road to recovery. These are the heroes who teach us, and inspire us to a higher standard of service to our nation, and compassion for our fellow Americans.
Again, I want to thank all of you for your efforts to provide comfort, healing, and the hope of recovery to victims and their families. The Department of Justice is dedicated to the cause that victim advocates have long championed. We are honored to be a partner with you in these efforts to balance the scales of justice for all Americans.
Thank you very much.