Honoring Our Past. Creating Hope for the Future.Posted: 04/05/2019
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan dedicated a week in April as “Crime Victims Week.” At the time, a victim’s place in the criminal justice system was limited. Victims were faceless and voiceless bystanders in a system designed to identify and punish offenders. While defendants were read their rights and provided counsel, crime victims had no equal rights or counsel to help them navigate the complex system or address the trauma they faced. Victim assistance programs were essentially nonexistent. The national call made by President Reagan to study and acknowledge the needs of crime victims helped provide traction for the victims’ rights movement. Since the first “Crime Victims Week,” there have been remarkable strides in the creation of legal rights and assistance programs for crime victims on the local, tribal, state, and federal levels. To learn more about the landmarks in victims’ rights and services on a national scale, click HERE.
Today, the Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) of the U.S. Department of Justice leads communities throughout the country in their annual observances of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week by promoting victims’ rights and honoring crime victims and those who advocate on their behalf. The theme for this year’s observance week is “Honoring Our Past. Creating Hope for the Future.” The State of Tennessee and the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office has a rich history answering the call that reverberated across the nation through the crime victims’ rights movement. The inclusion of the word “rights” in the national observance for crime victims represents a significant change all on its own.
Presently, every state has created statutory victims’ rights and nearly two-thirds of states have adopted constitutional amendments. In 1998, Tennessee amended its Constitution to include rights for crime victims. Creating constitutional law, as opposed to just statutes, increases the power, permanence, and application of victims’ rights. To review rights guaranteed to crime victims in the State of Tennessee, click HERE.
This constitutional change initiated a significant paradigm shift for everyone involved in the criminal justice system but particularly for prosecutors. Due to ethical rules, prosecutors were prohibited from discussing cases with anyone outside of the criminal justice system. Before these changes were implemented victims were often included in this group. Tennessee’s victims’ rights amendment, along with its statutory counterpart, the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act, provided a legal and ethical avenue for prosecutors to inform and confer with victims.
Additionally, by law in the State of Tennessee, a victim-witness coordinator is appointed in each judicial district by the district attorney general. There are formal, legislative duties bestowed upon victim-witness coordinators, outlined in Tenn. Code Ann. section 8-7-206. The Knox County District Attorney General’s Office has an appointed victim-witness coordinator and nearly 20 assistant victim-witness coordinators, whose highest priority and most important obligation is to serve victims. The mission of the Office’s Victim Witness Assistance Program is to enhance prosecution efforts by delivering the highest quality of services to victims and witnesses.
District Attorney General Charme Allen is committed to honoring the spirit and the letter of the Victims’ Bill of Rights. She has instituted special units for crimes such as domestic violence, child abuse, DUI, elder abuse, and murder. This type of model helps prosecution teams to focus on the unique needs of crime victims and to achieve the best possible outcomes. By providing a “vertical approach” to prosecution, victims are provided with a prosecutor and victim-witness coordinator to walk with them through the process of seeking justice.
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week provides communities with an opportunity to stand with their families, neighbors, friends, and colleagues whose lives have been forever altered by crime. The entire Knox County District Attorney’s Office is committed to putting crime victims first in its mission of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.
“Everyone involved in the criminal justice system has a role in honoring victims’ rights. Not only is it the law in Tennessee - it is the right thing to do,” shares District Attorney General Charme Allen.
The theme of the 2019 National Crime Victims’ Week encourages us to remember a time before there were professionals and services embedded in the criminal justice system dedicated to informing and supporting crime victims and to reflect on how we’ve come together to best serve our community. As we look to the future, we will continue to answer the call together.