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Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson of the Office of Justice Programs Speaks at the National Center for Victims of Crime Annual Conference


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Mai, and I’m delighted to be here, and good morning to all of you. I want to thank Attorney General Biden for his great commitment to these issues. I know he’s been stalwart, throughout his career, in his work on behalf of crime victims. And, by the way, he’s another Justice Department alum. We’re so grateful for his leadership in the great state of Delaware.

And let me thank Mai and her staff for their partnership with OJP. They’ve been terrific allies in our mutual efforts to strengthen victims’ rights and improve victim services. I’m grateful – and I know I speak for Mary Lou and Joye, as well – that we’ve been able to rely heavily on their guidance and direction. The National Center truly is a voice for all victims.

Today, more than ever, victims need advocates like the National Center – and like all of you. In spite of the good news about declining crime rates, victim services – like other criminal justice and public safety programs – are struggling to fulfill their missions in a tough economy. I doubt that’s a surprise to any of you in this room. Victim assistance programs have always operated on marginal budgets, and the current fiscal climate is making it even harder for you to do your jobs.

On top of these budgetary hardships, you’re also facing an array of new crimes and new types of victimization. If the sheer number of victims doesn’t present problems – and I’m sure in some cases it does – then surely the diversity of your clients’ needs poses a significant challenge.

And, of course, there’s the ongoing struggle to meet the needs of historically underserved populations like Native American victims, victims with disabilities, immigrant victims, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer victims. We’re definitely doing a better job of reaching these groups today – and I want to applaud the National Center for its groundbreaking work with the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs to raise awareness of the issues faced by LGBTQ victims. But in spite of all this great work, there are still far too many service gaps.

We are, as I’ve said many times, at a crossroads in victim services and public safety – and I think it’s a good time to re-assess where we are as a field and define for ourselves what we want victim assistance to look like in the 21st century.

It’s been 13 years since we’ve stepped back as a discipline to take stock of how we’re doing. When I was Assistant Attorney General under Janet Reno, we released New Directions from the Field, which was the first time we had made a broad assessment of the field as a whole since the 1982 President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime. New Directions highlighted the tremendous progress the nation had made in improving victims’ rights and services – and issued a number of recommendations for improving the field’s response to victims.

But here we are, more than a decade later, and while we’ve made good progress in many areas, we’ve frankly made too little progress in others. One of the problems, as all of you know too well, is that a number of new challenges have arisen. We’ve been forced to deal with the complicated issues stemming from mass violence and terrorism, and we’ve had to confront new problems related to technology.

And of course there are crimes we knew little if anything about in the late 90s that now demand special attention – human trafficking, for example, which presents significant cultural and language obstacles for service providers.

But the problem is even broader than addressing specific types of crime. We also need to renew our strategy. With the support of the Attorney General and the President – and members of Congress – the Crime Victims Fund is providing more resources to the field than ever before. But I don’t think we do enough with those resources. In fact, from what we’re hearing, the field is still struggling to maintain even basic services for our traditional constituencies.

As someone involved in this field of victim services for more than 30 years, I find this very unsettling when you consider the unprecedented deposits in the Crime Victims Fund.

In my view, we conceive of victim services too narrowly – it’s a domestic violence shelter or a rape crisis center. We sometimes fail to think holistically and consider integrating victim services with other disciplines, both inside and outside the justice system. Traditionally, victim assistance has been seen as a function of criminal justice. But think about it, we know that most victims never see the inside of a courtroom, and many victims have no interaction with the system at all. We need to ask: Is our conception of victim services outdated?

The time has come to think more expansively about how and where victims receive services and to broaden our mission beyond serving individual victims to strengthening communities and improving public safety.

In other words, it’s time we take a step back and re-focus our vision for victim services.

Beginning last year – and really even before that – we began setting the wheels in motion for a major reassessment of the victim services field that we call “Vision 21: Transforming Victim Services.” And I want to give credit where it’s due here. Joye has been shepherding this initiative, and it really has been a labor of love on her part. It’s hard to imagine more passion going into this effort.

This is an exciting undertaking, and we’ve already had some great conversations with the field. The goal of Vision 21 is to examine the state of the crime victims field and determine how to meet both the enduring challenges the field continues to face and the emerging issues that we’re still trying to get our heads around. This is, as I suggested a moment ago, not just an exercise in filling in the gaps and trying to find out whether and how to shift resources. This is a strategic effort to assess where we are in being able to respond to victims’ needs.

We’ve already held four stakeholder forums where we’ve brought together people from both the victim service field and from non-traditional groups to identify the issues and brainstorm ideas about how we can strengthen our service capacity. These forums have generated some interesting and lively discussions, and they’ve given us a great deal to think about.

For example, we’ve heard there’s a huge need for more data and research on victimization. I couldn’t agree more. I think we’ve become accustomed to relying, almost exclusively, on the power of victims’ stories and on forceful advocacy, which have been effective and should remain central to our strategy. But in an era of diminishing resources, we’re going to need hard data and solid evidence to inform policy and programming decisions.

This, by the way, has been my mantra. Shortly after I returned to OJP in 2009, I launched what we call the Evidence Integration Initiative – or E2I, for short. This is an OJP-wide effort, supported by the Attorney General, to expand our base of knowledge about “what works” in preventing and reducing crime and improving services.

And the goal is not just to expand our knowledge base, but to get that information out to practitioners in a way they can use it. This synthesis of research and practice is sorely needed throughout criminal justice, and I think clearly it can benefit the victims field.

We’ve gotten other feedback from the forums, as well. We’ve heard that our collective approach to serving victims is fragmented – that too often services are driven not by victims’ needs but by the funding stream that supports the program. Service providers do their best to respond to the victims they see, but often they’re spending a great deal of time looking for funding opportunities and dealing with the administrative tasks associated with grants – and that’s – frankly – time taken away from services!

Another theme we’ve heard is the need for wrap-around legal services. Right now, victims’ legal needs are partly addressed by a patchwork of clinics and organizations funded for different purposes. This puts the burden on the victim to sort out what she needs and where she should go for help – and I don’t think any of us consider this an ideal approach. Ideas have been floated about institutionalizing a national network of legal clinics designed to meet victims’ needs and enforce victims’ rights. This may be one way of ensuring that holistic approach I mentioned earlier.

So these discussions have been thoughtful and enlightening. We’ll be holding one more forum in Charleston in September to synthesize all the information gathered to date, and determine how to present it to the field. We’re also conducting literature reviews to really make sure we have a thorough grasp of the issues and challenges facing victim services.

The outcome of all these meetings and information gathering exercises will be a final report that will include a set of recommendations on how we can move the field forward. It will also have a blueprint for a national demonstration project or multiple demonstration projects to implement the recommendations.

What we hope to have in our hands at the end of all this is a strategy that lays out actions that state, local, tribal, national, and federal agencies can take to meet the challenges of victim services in the 21st century. In other words, a guide for the future of victim services in our country. Pretty ambitious? Yes. But critically important.

I want to really commend Joye and her staff – especially Meg Morrow – for the incredibly hard work they’re putting into this effort. And I want to thank Mai and her staff – Susan Howley, in particular – for their partnership here.

This is the kind of visionary project that we need now. We hear a lot of talk these days about innovations in policing, transformative shifts in thinking about corrections and reentry, and national movements like Justice Reinvestment that transcend politics. The victims field also needs to be part of these era-defining trends in public safety.

I’m eager to see what the near future will bring here. I’m not sure we can envision exactly what it’ll look like, but I know with all of us working together to shape it – thinking together in new ways and re-imagining our potential – the victim service field will be stronger, more effective, and better able to ensure a safer and more just world.

Thank you.

Updated September 17, 2014