By Eric R. Linhardt
"I was terrified. I kept thinking, 'They know who I am. They have my ID. What if they come to my home?' I am always looking over my shoulder, double- and triple-checking my locks on my home."
These words from a victim of crime in Lycoming County express the fears of many victims we meet every day. They come from real victims that we in the District Attorney's Office seek to treat with dignity and respect on a consistent basis.
Today begins National Crime Victims' Rights Week, a time to honor crime victims and our nation's progress in advancing their rights. This year's theme - Extending the Vision: Reaching Every Victim - celebrates the vision behind that progress and the ideal of serving all victims of crime.
The vision that launched the victims' rights movement emerged more than 30 years ago. Then-as now-crime victims endured physical and emotional wounds, costly financial burdens, an often hostile criminal justice system, and an alarming public tendency to blame them for the crimes against them. Victims were often excluded from courtrooms, disrespected by officials, and afforded few rights. Simply, they had no say in an event that left wounds both apparent and hidden.
Since the 1980s, the nation has made dramatic progress in securing rights, protections, and services for victims of crime. Every state has enacted victims' rights laws, and 32 states have constitutional victims' rights amendments. All states have victim compensation funds, and more than 10,000 victim service agencies have been established throughout the country. The Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, supports a range of programs for crime victims, and seeks to extend those services to those who are underserved.
Yet there is still so much to do and many challenges remain.
In Pennsylvania, for example, agencies that provide services to Victims of Juvenile Offenders had seen their state funding dwindle over the past three years before it was eliminated altogether from the 2012-13 state budget. Those budget cuts have forced many agencies to consider closing their doors, leaving victims of juvenile crime with no place to turn and making it that much more difficult to navigate the oft-times confusing juvenile justice system.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has been a vocal proponent of seeing those funds restored. If you feel strongly or have been a victim yourself I urge you to contact your state legislators to have your voice heard.
Victims of crime whether committed by an adult or a juvenile have the right to be heard. They have the right to know the status of their case, and the right to be protected from intimidation. They have the right to be returned to pre-crime status economically and the right to know when their offender is being released from prison or detention. Victim service professionals are on the front lines, providing those services and seeing that those rights are being met.
For prosecutors to be successful, in Lycoming County and around Pennsylvania, we need to have the witnesses of crime - the victims - willing and able to testify. Those witnesses and victims need to feel safe and need the emotional support that victim advocates provide. Without successful prosecution, offenders go free into the community, where they are free to harm others.
Despite the challenges they face, victim services professionals have not lost their resolve. They still possess the commitment to 'extend the vision' and 'reach every victim'.
It's a commitment the Lycoming County District Attorney's Office is making every day, and I did not want to let National Crime Victims' Rights Week go by without urging others to keep moving this important issue forward.
Linhardt is Lycoming County's district attorney.