The U.S. Justice Department is preparing to launch a nationwide program to improve services for crime victims.
“Our goal is pretty simple but far-reaching: we want to re-frame the role of victim services in the 21 st century,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary told the National Center for Victims of Crime at its annual convention today in New Orleans.
Justice Department officials have been meeting for two years with crime-victim advocates around the nation to plan the “Vision 21” initiative.
The basic idea is to institutionalize crime-victim assistance, making it a central, permanent part of what Leary calls the “criminal justice and human services infrastructure,” rather than an afterthought whose quality varies from place to place.
It has been three decades since a task force during the presidency of Ronald Reagan issued the first national report on crime victims, which helped lead to enactment of the 1984 federal Victims of Crime Act.
“Victim assistance is no longer a grassroots movement but a bona-fide profession and a national force,” Leary said.
A former prosecutor, she also is the former executive director of the center whose convention she addressed today.
A summary of the Vision 21 plan released by the Justice Department cited what it called a “troubling…lack of certain victims' perspectives in criminal justice policy debates, which remain focused on the prosecution and incarceration of offenders.”
Although reported crime rates have been on the decline, the Justice Department cited the “sobering reality” that some kinds of victimization may be increasing, such as crime in cyberspace, human trafficking, and crime committed against older people and those with disabilities.
The summary noted that “a staggering 42 percent of victims never report serious violent crime to law enforcement” and said “we need to know why.”
According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced an estimated 18.7 million violent and property crime victimizations during 2010. That included 3.8 million violent victimizations. The figures are much higher than those in the FBI's annual compilation of crimes from local police departments because they include estimates of unreported offenses.
Many details of the “Vision 21” initiative are yet to be finalized pending approval from the Obama administration, but Leary announced several of them today.
One basic challenge is that no comprehensive body of empirical data exists to establish the types of services that victims need. Leary is transferring funds from the Office for Victims of Crime to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to expand data collection.
The department also has awarded a grant to the Rand Corporation, which will work with the National Center for Victims of Crime “to develop a statistical system to collect detailed data about the services provided to victims and about the organizations that provide those services.”
The Justice Department is also exploring better ways to use technology to aid victims. Leary praised an Internet-based case management system operated by the Denver Victim Services Network.
Telemedicine is also gaining prominence. The DOJ Office for Victims of Crime is awarding nearly $3.3 million to create a National Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Telemedicine Center.
The Center, to be operated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, will provide expert medical forensic examiners at four pilot sites to work as consultants on sexual assault forensic medical exams.
Leary promised new programs to aid children who are exposed to violence and to assist military personnel who are sexual assault victims. The Justice Department will target aid to community-based sexual-assault service providers near military installations.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and a Washington, DC-based contributing editor to
The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.