2012 Victims’ Rights Summit

Remarks of:

Ventura County District Attorney
Gregory D. Totten

Real Justice:

Victims’ Rights Delivered

May 14, 2012

Sacramento, California

On behalf of the California District Attorneys Association I am delighted to welcome you to this important statewide conference on victims’ rights. At the outset, I want to acknowledge and thank the California Emergency Management Agency for the funding that made this conference possible. With their support the next two days promise to be both informative and inspirational. It is also our goal to use this conference as the foundation for a future report that will serve as blue print for the delivery of victims’ rights and services here in California.

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We are fortunate to have such a diverse gathering here today that includes state officials, peace officers, prosecutors, victim advocates, community based organizations and crime survivors. Each of you brings a unique perspective to this subject and we are grateful for your presence. Let me also encourage you to engage in the break outs because we need your input to ensure that the road map we develop for the future of victim services is both comprehensive and realistic.

The theme, “Real Justice: Victims’ Rights Delivered” is certainly fitting at this moment in time. In 2008 California’s voters approved Marsy’s Law and thus spoke loudly and clearly on the subject of victims. Protections for crime victims — once considered only a dream — now enjoy the stature of expressly enumerated constitutional rights that our justice system must honor.

Yet against this backdrop, we find ourselves in the midst of a great criminal justice experiment called “realignment” — the most significant change to California sentencing law in a generation. Meanwhile, state and local government face daunting budget deficits; funding for law enforcement, victim compensation and services have markedly declined. So today we confront circumstances where expectations of crime victims are as high as ever, while our ability to deliver on those expectations faces unprecedented challenges.

Now, confronted with this reality, it is tempting to retreat to the bastion of all true bureaucrats – we can blame someone else for our funding woes or the policies that make our jobs more difficult. Well this morning, I’d like to suggest that we reject this temptation and instead renew our commitment to making the treatment of victims a priority because — it is simply the right thing to do.

The sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, and husbands and wives who have lost their loved ones to violence are not interested in excuses they just want to know that we care and are going to fight for them. They want justice – “Real Justice” and it is our solemn duty to do everything within our power to deliver it not solely in holding the guilty accountable but in every single interaction we have with them.

Real Justice and renewing our commitment to victims requires that we guard the progress of the victims’ movement:

A little over 30 years ago, if you were hurt by crime and your life fell apart, nobody was there to help put the pieces back together. Back then, it was the rare prosecutor or investigator that had or took the time to explain the criminal justice system, tell you the status of the case or information about the offender, let alone provide a shoulder to lean or more importantly cry on. But there were a few and I salute those early pioneers.

If the defendant was convicted, you were not given the opportunity to speak to the court at the time of the sentencing regarding the dramatic impact the crime had on your life and that of your family. You couldn’t talk of your pain, or your fear, or get an answer to the question “will my life ever return to some definition of normalcy?” You were all too often simply a witness, a means to an end, a forgotten part of a system too busy and too impersonal and too focused on the defendant to really care about you. And there was so little known about victimology. The assumption was you would be fine, pull yourself up by the boot straps and get on with your life.

A crime victim who testified before the President’s Task Force on Victims in 1982 described this ordeal with disturbing candor:

They explained the defendant’s constitutional rights to the nth degree. They couldn’t do this and they couldn’t do that because of his constitutional rights. And I wondered what mine were. Then they told me, I haven’t got any.

Thank God, out of all of this, a hand full of people began to make a difference and we saw hope and strength emerge in the form of victims’ rights movement. And I must add that although the women’s movement beginning in the 70s and 80s had its critics, I believe it deserves a great deal of the credit for bringing about early changes in the way we treated victims of crime. Many of you here today were in the vanguard of that change. Because of our early involvement in victims’ rights, your influence was felt nationwide and you continue to be on the cutting edge today.

Today there are over 30,000 laws that define and protect victims’ rights. There are over 10,000 national, state and local organizations that provide assistance to people who have been hurt by crime: Family justice centers that provide intervention and comprehensive services for victims of domestic violence including everything from restraining orders to counseling and education; multi-disciplinary interview centers that ensure more compassionate and humane treatment of child and sexual assault victims; countless community based organizations that provide crisis services and emergency housing for victims and their children; Victim service programs that guide and support the victim through the criminal justice system and offer help with restitution and applications for compact funds.

Achieving “real justice” and renewing our commitment begins with the heart.

An excerpt from one of my favorite children’s stories puts this in context. The Little Prince by Saint Exupery tells the story of a little prince on a great adventure and in search of the meaning of life. He eventually befriends a fox who joins him on his search for period of time and when they finally part the fox tells him, “Here is my secret, it’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Seeing with the heart can be difficult for those of us who work daily in criminal justice system. We can become a little hardened to the pain and suffering of the victims we serve. We walk through too many bloody crime scenes, we see too much death and dying. When victims come through our doors they are often at the lowest point in their lives, broken and wounded.

We also deal with victims who can be openly hostile to us: gang members who are witnesses and victims one day and suspects and defendants the next; domestic violence victims who reach the courthouse steps only to recant and refuse to testify; victims of property crimes who are themselves motivated by greed and avarice.

As prosecutors, were trained to see things with our own eyes whether visiting the crime scene, examining a piece of evidence or interviewing a witness. This certainly helps us prove our cases and secure convictions. While that’s the most important thing we can do for victims — is it enough? Is it enough to see them with our eyes, interview them, put them on the witness stand only to then move on to the next case and the next victim.

And I am reminded of a lesson I learned decades ago from a victim advocate named Ellie Liston. Ellie had been a nurse before she came to the District Attorney’s Office as our first victim advocate. She had heart for and intuitive sense of people that were hurting. As I walked into her office ready to interview a child victim, she took one look at me in my best three piece suit, started shaking her head and said “listen I know you’ve got a job to do, but this is not about you – it’s about a child who has been hurt who will still be a victim when you and your case are a distant memory.”

In fact, our Crime Victims’ Assistance Program is now named after this legendary victim advocate, Ellie Liston. More than 30 years ago, she came to the office to serve as very first victim advocate. With an extensive background in nursing she had heart for and an intuitive sense about people that were hurting.

This is a time to celebrate how far we have come and to contemplate how far we have yet to go. It is a time to recognize and express our deep appreciation to those who have worked so very hard to make a difference in the lives of crime victims. People like Ellie Liston who devoted a lifetime to helping those in distress. It is also a time to remember and honor the victims of crime.

But obtaining justice for all victims is not something that will ever be easily accomplished. It will always be dependent upon the dedication, caring and sacrifice of people like you.

This offers us not only an opportunity to reflect upon our accomplishments, but to share our hopes and vision for the future. We must never forget that when even one person in our community is touched by crime, our collective humanity is diminished. And when we help that person get through the pain and sadness, we bring a measure of justice to our entire community, and restore and make stronger our humanity.

Our goal must be to have a justice system where all victims are acknowledged, receive help, and are treated with dignity and respect, and yes, love.

So let this be a time for a renewed commitment to see that justice’s bell rings loudly alongside that of freedom. And let this be a time for a new commitment to be just and honorable and loving in our own lives so that we will continue to make a difference.

In the words of Daniel Webster:

Justice is the great interest of man on earth. It is the ligament which holds civilized beings and civilized nations together. Wherever her temple stands, and so long as it is duly honored, there is a foundation for social security, general happiness, and the improvement and progress of our race. And whoever labors on this edifice with usefulness and distinction, whoever clears its foundations, strengthens its pillars, … or contributes to raise its august dome still higher in the skies, connects himself, in name, and fame, and character, with that which is and must be as durable as the frame of human society.