Remarks of the Honorable David J. Hickton
United States Attorney For The Western District of Pennsylvania
Washington County’s Crime Victims’ Rights Week Observance
At the U. S. Attorney’s Office, we dedicate a lot of our efforts toward prosecuting individuals who violate federal law and the rights of others through their violent crime, financial fraud, child exploitation, identity theft and human trafficking. While aggressive prosecution is necessary to protect the rights of each and every citizen, we know we cannot prosecute our way out of problems. Nor can prosecution be the only means of protection for the citizens we have taken an oath to protect and serve.
It is through our prevention efforts that we seek to protect you, your children, your grandchildren and family members from ever being the victim of a crime. A large part of any prevention strategy is awareness.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a time to reflect on the tremendous achievements we have made since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) 18 years ago, while reminding ourselves that much is still to be done to enable our children and grandchildren to grow up in an America free of sexual assault.
Sexual assault occurs when someone is forced, coerced, or manipulated into unwanted sexual activity without agreeing or consenting. Reasons someone might not be able to consent include fear, being underage, having an illness or disability, or being incapacitated due to alcohol or other drugs. Consent can be initially given, and then later withdrawn.
Sexual assault is a crime that comes in many forms, including forced intercourse, sexual contact or touching, sexual exploitation, and exposure or voyeurism. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, regardless of what she or he is wearing or doing, including if the victim has been drinking or is in a relationship with the perpetrator.
Statistics tell us that young women between the ages of 16 and 24 face the highest rates of rape, sexual assault and stalking – with college years right in the middle of that age range. One in five undergraduate women reported experiencing completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college. Rapes involving alcohol are much more prevalent than rapes involving date-rape drugs and the risk of incapacitated rape increases significantly during college. Only 2% of victims of incapacitated rape reported the assault to law enforcement.
The Department of Justice is strengthening the criminal justice response to violence against women through its implementation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA has led to significant improvements in the criminal and civil justice systems, encouraging victims to file complaints, improving evidence collection, and increasing access to protection orders. VAWA forever changed the way this nation meets our responsibility to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
On March 7, 2013, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. The 2013 reauthorization of VAWA expanded the historic legislation that defends the rights of all victims and survivors. The new tribal provisions are of particular importance to all of us at the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Offices. VAWA 2013 closes jurisdictional gaps that had long compromised American Indian and Alaska Native women’s safety and access to justice. This change supports the sovereignty of tribes and holds perpetrators accountable – a necessary step to reducing violence against Native women.
The reauthorization also ensures that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender survivors have access to the services they need and deserve, enables victims in publicly subsidized housing to stay safe by transferring to a different unit or location, and adds protections for college students, who have some of the highest rates of rape in the nation.
Since 2009, the Office on Violence Against Women has awarded a record number of grants – totaling more than $1.5 billion – to states, territories, local and tribal governments, and nonprofit organizations in order to launch, sustain, and strengthen activities related to combating violence against women.
These investments have supported a wide variety of critical efforts – from initiatives aimed at preventing domestic violence homicide, teen dating violence, and sexual assaults, to improving the reporting of these crimes, reducing the backlog of rape kits, and building the capacity of Tribal Courts to combat domestic violence.
Sexual assault and rape are problems that affect people of every background, ethnicity, age, ability or sexual orientation. Sexual assault, sexual violence, and rape impact not only the immediate victims, but their families, neighbors, friends, and indeed their entire communities.
As we look toward the future it is important to remember that the substantial progress we have made has not been inevitable. The progress has resulted from the work of committed advocates, policymakers, law enforcement officers, brave survivors and others who tirelessly fight to combat violence against women in our communities. One of the most significant achievements is the percentage of victims of rape and sexual assault who said they reported the assault to the police increasing from 28.8% in 1993 to 50% in 2010.
For two years, the Office on Violence Against Women worked with the FBI, law enforcement, and victim advocates to update the definition of rape used for the FBI’s nationwide data collection, ensuring that rape will be more accurately reported nationally. The change sends an important message to all victims that what happens to them matters, and to perpetrators that they will be held accountable. “Forcible rape” had been defined as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” This definition, unchanged since 1927, was outdated and narrow. The new definition includes any gender of victim or perpetrator. It also includes instances in which the victim is incapable of giving consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity (including due to the influence of drugs or alcohol) or because of age.
In addition to this being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, this week is National Crime Victims Rights Week. The Department of Justice and the U. S. Attorney community are deeply committed to assisting victims of federal crimes, ensuring they are afforded their rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (the “CVRA”), protecting them from further harm, and helping them reshape their futures. We take this responsibility very seriously. Department of Justice employees must use their best efforts to ensure that federal crime victims are notified of and accorded rights under the CVRA.
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week provides an opportunity to highlight the work being done on behalf of crime victims, the progress that has been made, and encourages victims to speak out and use the services available to them.
In 2009, a young woman from North-Central Pennsylvania testified regarding her former boyfriend’s actions in brandishing a gun when searching her home. The former boyfriend, who was admitted to the United States on a non-immigrant student visa in 2001, had obtained a stolen gun and drove it from his home in Pittsburgh to the residence of the victim, his then girlfriend. There he brandished the gun, searched her residence for the other man he believed may be present and threatened to kill her. After finding no one, he left the residence. The victim gave moving testimony as to her former boyfriend’s actions regarding the impact his violent and dangerous domestic abuse actions had upon her life and her personal feelings of security. As a result of the victim’s willingness to testify, the defendant was convicted of violating federal firearm laws. He was also found to be in the United States illegally as he failed to maintain his student immigration status and has since been deported.
The Department of Justice continues to support the work of local victim service providers across the country – through training, through information resources, and through direct services. Our work has made a real difference in communities.
In many districts, our Victim-Witness personnel play a critical role in collecting and providing restitution information to the court and ensuring that restitution is addressed at sentencing.
U. S. Attorney’s Office Victim-Witness personnel also provide a wide range of services to federal crime victims, including: referrals for counseling; access to medical care; assistance with victim compensation programs; assistance with employers and creditors; and translation and interpreter services.
The Crime Victim’s Fund, which is funded by fines and penalties from federal criminals rather than tax dollars, supports programs to enhance victims’ rights and services. One such program, the Federal Crime Victims Assistance Fund, helps victims pay certain expenses, such as counseling services, emergency medical or housing expenses, and the costs associated with attending court hearings and trials.
Only 30 years ago, crime victims had no rights, access to crime victim compensation or services to help rebuild their lives. They were often excluded from courtrooms, treated as an afterthought by the criminal justice system and denied an opportunity to speak at sentencing.
Through decades of advocacy work, we have come a long way. Today, all states have enacted crime victims’ rights laws and established crime victim compensation funds; but we can do more.
This year’s theme for National Crime Victims’ Rights Week – “New Challenges—New Solutions” – reflects that we still have work to do. Not every victim has access to services. Not every community has a place where victims can go for support. And where services do exist, victims do not always know about them.
Despite all of our progress, victim advocates still face a host of new challenges as they strive to provide culturally competent services for increasingly diverse populations, such as seniors, teens and immigrant populations and for victims of new prevalent crimes, such as human trafficking, technology-related stalking and identify theft. As funding sources decrease, providers must target their services even more strategically.
Advocates also confront enduring challenges. Victims’ rights are not universal and often are not enforced. Victims do not always receive the dignity and respect they deserve. They often absorb the physical, emotional and financial costs of crime largely by themselves.
It is only in working together that we can make a difference and save lives, and the Justice Department will continue to take every possible step to enforce laws protecting victims of violence and to provide resources to aid victim service providers.
Giving every victim an opportunity to be heard and respected is an important goal of reaching out to them, their families and communities. I urge each of you to become a victim advocate in your own right. If you know someone who has been a victim of a crime, commit to being their ally. Encourage them to report the crime; encourage them to seek help for physical, emotional or financial damages the crime has caused them. Remind them that no matter what they were doing when the crime occurred, it is not their fault. The one thing you can give them that does not cost a thing is your support.
While we honor and support those victims of such a heinous and destructive crime as sexual assault, we also need to acknowledge there is no such thing as a victimless crime. Let us all take a vow of interolance toward any individual who victimizes and violates the rights of any individual. Take a vow to hold all perpetrators of crime accountable for their actions. Vow to eliminate the stigma of “snitching”. Remaining silent about a crime only empowers the perpetrator. By breaking the cycle of silence and fear of getting involved and bringing perpetrators to justice, crime victims and their allies have the power to change the course of history.
On March 29, 2013, President Barack Obama signed a Proclamation proclaiming April as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, 2013. As President Obama stated, let us keep working to prevent violence in every corner of America, and let us rededicate ourselves to giving survivors the bright future they deserve.
On behalf of President Obama, the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Office, I echo that proclamation and hereby proclaim that together, our Nation is moving forward in the fight against sexual assault. This month, let us keep working to prevent violence in every corner of America, and let us rededicate ourselves to giving survivors the bright future they deserve. We urge all Americans to support survivors of sexual assault and work together to prevent these crimes in their communities.