Sheltering in a Crime Scene
by U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town
American society’s discussion on crime typically focuses on those who threaten our communities and hurt us – the crooks, the abusers, the bad guys, the worst among us. But what those in law enforcement know is that the victims of heinous acts belong at the forefront as well. After all the crime victim drives our criminal justice system.
Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first Victims’ Rights Week in 1981, putting crime victims' rights, needs, and concerns in a prominent spot on the American agenda. He also established the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime, which laid the groundwork for a national network of services and legal safeguards for crime victims. President Trump and his administration have implemented historic levels of support for victim assistance and victim compensation.
While most violent crime is continuing to decrease during the pandemic, domestic violence calls for service are on the rise. People are more isolated. Abusive partners are under more stress. The options for escape are limited, if not cut off entirely.
Victims of crime are also without support services during this pandemic. Courts, shelters, or even other family members are frequently out of reach. Victims of domestic abuse are then forced to stay with their abusers.
Conversely, while domestic violence calls to law enforcement are increasing, protection from abuse orders are decreasing and becoming more difficult to secure as courts grapple with continuing operations while balancing the health of courthouse and courtroom personnel.
It is no solution to await the eventual end of social distancing to address the on-going and ever-present dangers endured by victims of domestic abuse. The public’s trust in our justice system hinges upon protecting victims and holding offenders accountable. Overcoming the challenges that a pandemic presents to our society and its public institutions demands our best. Our resolve to maintain the rule of law must not be one of the casualties of the coronavirus.
Prosecutors and law enforcement have proven that resolve, and shown their mettle, during this pandemic. Together, they stand at the ready to defend victims and seek justice against their abusers. But we are doing more than just arresting and prosecuting criminals.
Indeed, the hope and relief that our justice system provides should never be out of reach of victims just because they cannot physically pass through the doors of a courthouse. The recently enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – or CARES Act – provides $850 million dollars in Justice Department grants to aid in building and supporting community-based responses to the coronavirus.
In fact, the Justice Department makes hundreds of millions of dollars available each year to support victim services – the most, by far, in the history of the Crime Victims Fund. Most of that funding supports domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, child advocacy programs, homicide support groups, identity theft services, and local victim assistance programs.
Also, through initiatives such as Project Guardian and Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Justice Department is using more data, resources, and technology than ever before to prevent firearms from illegally coming into possession of known domestic abusers and violent offenders. And because of the partnerships forged between state and federal prosecutors, those defendants are going to federal prison…where there is no sanctuary of parole.
Being stuck inside has many challenges for all of us. But this National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and moving forward, we need to remember that there are those among us, perhaps unknown to us, who are simply stuck. The justice system must continue to provide legal options for victims of crime, especially victims of domestic violence and abuse, during this pandemic.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr noted this week that: “Every year, millions of Americans suffer the shock and trauma of criminal victimization, affecting their well-being and sense of security and dignity.” He affirmed the Department of Justice’s “unwavering commitment to supporting them in their hour of need.” Indeed, this week is an opportunity for the men and women of the Department to recommit ourselves once again to ensuring that crime victims are protected and continue to have a voice in our legal system.
Especially at the time of the coronavirus, a public health crisis must not be allowed to expand into a public safety crisis. While all victims of crime are priorities of the criminal justice system, it is critical that we consider how sheltering in place can be especially challenging for victims of domestic violence or abuse. Their homes, too often, are neither shelters nor safe spaces.
They are crime scenes.