The COVID-19 outbreak is putting an enormous strain on our entire criminal justice system. But as concerns grow about the impact on those held behind bars, the plight of another group of individuals should not be overlooked.
Statistics and anecdotal reports suggest child abuse, domestic violence and elder exploitation are on the rise. However, as a result of social distancing and quarantine orders, the professionals who help the victims of these and other crimes are less able to help.
Counselors, case managers and advocates are now required to work from home, and have less contact with their clients.
As we mark National Crime Victims Rights Week, it has never been so appropriate to ask that, in addition to paying respect to those who have valiantly fought for victims’ rights, all parts of the criminal justice community come together to ensure the safety of victims.
This week, take a moment to consider how our health crisis has affected those who have been victims of crime.
Expedited custody releases are taking place with little or no notice to victims. Court closures mean that orders of protection are harder to obtain. Shelters for those fleeing domestic violence are short of cleaning materials and protective gear, leaving those protected inside vulnerable to disease.
They are of course part of a much larger vulnerable community whose plight parallels those of victims.
To slow the spread of the virus, prisons and jails are releasing elderly individuals or those whose medical conditions gives them weak immunity. These citizens will be reentering communities that do not have the capacity to serve them.
Social distancing decreases the ability of counselors, probation officers and case managers to engage with their clients. The healthcare system, already stretched to the breaking point, is scrambling to make room for those who previously received care through correctional facilities.
These are challenges only the criminal justice community working together can address.
It’s not a time to identify only as victims’ advocates or activists for the rights of the incarcerated.
It’s a time to realize how these challenges are inextricably related.
For example, an individual who was formerly incarcerated may be returning to a home that is unsafe, where they may become a victim with limited access to resources. We do this person a disservice by defining him or her as a victim or a perpetrator, rather than someone who needs help.
As the crisis continues, we must coordinate responses at the federal, state, and community levels. Some communities have already developed innovative tools.
The King County, Wa., prosecutor’s office has created an electronic alternative to seeking an emergency protection order against a domestic abuser. Petitioners can obtain a protection order virtually while in a safe place.
Technology offers other opportunities to develop best practices, and collaborative teams in every jurisdiction in the country should explore them.
The needs of victims should be not be left out of the conversation. It’s crucial to ensure that victims’ rights are upheld, such as the right to receive timely information regarding their case.
The shared vulnerability all of us feel in response to COVID-19 pandemic should provide us with an equally powerful shared purpose—and an opportunity for criminal justice stakeholders to speak with one, united voice.
The crisis is an opportunity, in fact, to create a system that works better for all those who are touched by issues of justice and safety.
We should not let it pass by.
Reneé Williams is Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. David LaBahn is President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.They welcome readers’ comments.