ENSURING PUBLIC SAFETY FOR THE NEXT MILLENNIUM: The Two Faces of Victim/Witness Programs in the United States

In April of 1996, the Office for Victims of Crime part of the U.S. Department of Justice awarded a generous grant to the Parole Commission to start-up our victim/witness office. The overarching mission of the grant was to improve the way the Commission handled the sensitive needs of victims and witnesses at parole, mandatory release violation and revocation hearings. We've come a long way since 1996. After we received the grant, our first step was to turn two clerical positions in the office into "victim/witness" positions. We provided intensive training for these two staffers and since, then, we've added another position.

I'm proud to say, the U.S. Parole Commission has been very active in the victim/witness area in recent years. I'd like to tell you a little bit about what we're doing.

In 1998, thanks to the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act, the U.S. Parole Commission did something that I'm sure is unique in the world of parole: we assumed the authority of another, totally separate and apart, parole board. Almost as if the Connecticut Parole Board started handling New York State cases. With the Revitalization Act, under which a number of governmental functions of the District of Columbia were taken over by the Federal government, we assumed the parole release authority of the District of Columbia Board of Parole. Next month, we're slated to complete that process when we assume revocation authority over Washington, D.C. parolees. So, on the Federal side, we have a Victim/Witness Program, and on the D.C. side, we've inherited the Victim/Witness Program from the D.C. Board of Parole. There are some fundamental differences between the two programs, which means the Commission is essentially juggling two Victim/Witness offices. One of our recent innovative ideas was to look at new ways of getting victims and witnesses to appear at revocation hearings. In the past, we would have the U.S. Marshals subpoena victims and witnesses. This seemed like an unnecessarily burdensome method, so we now use express mail to deliver subpoenas.

But included in that is also personal contact the key principle behind quality customer service. The staff of our Victim/Witness Office makes ever effort to connect by phone to answer questions, provide support where possible and to make referrals for support when needed. And a follow-up telephone call several days prior to the hearing to ensure participation. This is standard practice now, and not just in the world of corrections and parole. Don't you get a call the day before a doctor's appointment, just to confirm that you'll still be there?

We also want to ensure that victims and witnesses are notified of the results of revocation hearings. We're offering victims and witnesses who participate in hearings the opportunity to be included in the Bureau of Prisons Victim/Witness notification program, so that they're automatically notified of any new parole hearings or changes in the offender's status.

Not long ago, we had our hearing examiners provide a questionnaire and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to each victim and witness present at a hearing. After we collected that data, we got some interesting responses we know that our system works, because the numbers back it up.

When personal contact was made to 314 individuals, the rate of attendance at hearings was just over 96 percent (96.5%). Even when our Victim/Witness staff left a message on an answering machine about a hearing, the attendance rate of those folks was over 87 percent (87.5%).

You might think that we'd have less participation in hearings if the subpoenas are delivered by express mail, rather than served by a federal marshal, but more than 91 percent (91.2%) of civilians who were delivered subpoena's by mail appeared at revocation hearings.

More than 92 percent (92.3%) of victims and witnesses who testified at a hearing said they felt safe.

70 percent (70.0%) of civilian witnesses at hearings responded that they thought having a victim/witness coordinator was very helpful.

And it's not just civilian victims and witnesses who responded favorably: law enforcement professionals have provided us with positive feedback, too. 90 percent (90.0%) of police and corrections witnesses found that having a victim/witness coordinator was helpful.

We asked 18 police and corrections witnesses who received a subpoena by express mail if that was an appropriate method of delivery, and 17 responded 'yes '.

I think those numbers indicate we're on the right track.

Thanks to Director Katherine Turman and the Office for Victims of Crime, we've been able to develop a high-tech solution for including D.C. victims in hearings as well. The Commission has set up high-resolution videoconferencing equipment at the Greensville facility in Jarratt, Virginia which houses about 1,000 D.C. Offenders and at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in downtown D.C. It's going to allow us to do some pretty amazing things, especially now that the D.C. facility at Lorton is closing. Victims won't have to travel to the Greensville facility.

The U.S. Department of Justice created the Office for Victims of Crime in 1983 and Congress formally established it in 1988. Since I've been Chairman, I've enjoyed working with Director Turman, and believe that the function of her office is crucial to us in the paroling world.

The U.S. Parole Commission, having been downsized, abolished, and now resurrected, has been a bit of a latecomer to victim/witness but that doesn' t mean we can't be innovators. Recently, we have made a major commitment to involving victims and witnesses in the parole process, and we are all benefiting from that involvement.

Thank you.

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