“Really, it’s the victims we work for. They are the taxpayers of the county and that’s what we’re here to do.” – Capt. John Whitfield

 

Police and prosecutors aren’t just about catching and punishing criminals. They’re about helping those criminals’ victims too.

This week has been set aside nationally as Crime Victims’ Rights Week to remind the public of that fact.

District Attorney Scott Thomas, who has himself been a recipient of the N.C. Victims Assistance Network Political Action Award, released a statement for the week, whose 2017 theme is “Strength, Resilience, Justice.”

“It reflects a vision for the future in which all victims are strengthened by the response they receive,” he said.

Thomas notes that crime victims cover a broad range of people, “anything from the victim of a house breaking and entering all the way up to, and including a murder case,” he said.

And the victims may not only be the people most directly affected or immediately victimized, such as in homicides and manslaughter cases when whole families become affected.

As a rule, Thomas’s office becomes involved with victims after someone has been charged with a crime though, especially in the most serious crimes such as homicides, victims’ families will contact him and his office will assist.

Asked about victim statistics in District 3B (which includes Craven, Pamlico and Carteret counties) he said, “We don’t look at it that way. The statistic we give is that our crime victims receive 100 percent attention. I emphasize to my district attorneys that, while we may have hundreds of crimes that we’re working with, to that particular crime victim, theirs is the case. It’s the one that affects them.”

The most prevalent crime? Breaking and entering, Thomas said – a crime most committed by addicts looking for a way to pay for drugs.

Victim assistance can begin long before a suspect is in jail, however.

Capt. John Whitfield of the Craven County Sheriff’s Office said that working victims is a key part of what his department does. “Really, it’s the victims we work for,” he said. “They are the taxpayers of the county and that’s what we’re here to do.”

While victims have little to do with the investigation of crimes, unless they are direct witnesses, that doesn’t mean they’re not a key part of the case.

“Any crime, we try to assess what a victim needs and we try to help them with that,” he said. That help might come in the form of seeking medical attention for someone. It might be contacting clergy or helping to set up other social or psychological needs.

Often officers will advise victims in ways to better protect themselves or their homes or provide resource contacts.

“It could be that the window or door was broken, and we make sure it’s secure before we leave,” he said. Whitfield recalled situations where officers investigated break-ins that occurred when families weren’t home. “We have to assess how to protect what is in there,” he said, and secure the scene before they leave, such as seeing that a broken window is boarded up or otherwise protected.

Detective David Upchurch of the New Bern Police Department noted that officers also hand out information helping victims find the help they need, often through such agencies as the Coastal Women’s Shelter, Promise Place and PORT Human Services. In the case of breakings and enterings (“B and E’s”) they do walk-throughs, securing the sight, making lists of missing items, and following up later to see if other items were found missing. They also follow up to be sure the victims have secured the help they need.

Once an arrest is made, the DA’s office steps in for victim assistance. “We work closely with victims as they go through the criminal justice system from point of charge to conviction,” Thomas noted.

Thomas said letters are sent to every victim outlining their rights and offering assistance. A form is also sent out that victims fill out listing their losses and resultant costs and, and any way that the crime has affected them be it physically or psychologically.

Although his office deals with thousands of victims, Thomas said, he reviews every letter and form sent to them. “I personally sign every letter that goes out. It’s not signed by an automated signer or whatever you call those things.”

Thomas said victims are also notified of all court dates and have the right to attend those hearings of the men or women who victimized them. At a plea or upon a guilty conviction in a trial, they also have the right to address the judge before sentence is passed, either orally or through a letter.

While victims do not have a final say, Thomas said prosecutors are careful to let the them speak out about their feelings in the case. Their feelings and needs can greatly influence the outcome of case or the pleas that are offered to the offender.

“Ultimately the prosecution has to make the final decision about cases based on the rule of law and the circumstances,” he said. “Often times, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of emotion involved.”

He said victims may also be aware of information being fed throughout the community that they believe can be used against the perpetrator, “but that doesn’t always work. We have to work with what’s admissible in a court of law.”

Still, “We always seek input from the victims about what they want to see happen.”

Once a conviction is made, victims are still kept in the picture. They are notified of early release hearings or pardons, and are given the opportunity to be heard by parole boards regarding their feelings on these matters.

As to the picture for crime victims, there is mostly good news, but some bad.

In the period of time since 1995, many crimes have gone down according to the federal Office for Victims of Crime:

• Victimization of adolescents, down 80 percent.

• Homicide in the workplace, down 62 percent.

• “Serious victimization” in urban areas down 72 percent, in suburban areas down 65 percent, and in rural ares, down 48 percent.

• Student victimization, down 75 percent.

• Intimate partner violence, down 98 percent among men and 65 percent among women.

• Hate crimes down 36 percent.

• Elder victimization, down 36 percent.

A few of those crimes, while seeing a significant drop from 1995, still had a sudden increase from 2014 to 2015. These include hate crime (up 7 percent) and especially homicide, which jumped 11.4 percent in 2015 – the largest jump since 1995.

In some areas, the jump is even higher, such as Baltimore that saw a 64 percent jump in 2015.

Other victim statistics from the Office of Victims of Crime:

Two percent of all men and 19 percent of all women will have been raped over their lifetime while 44 percent of women and 23 percent of men will experience some form of sexual violence.

The cost to the nation for treating rape victimization? $122,461 per victim or $3.1 trillion overall, including medical costs and loss of work productivity.

On American campuses, 1 in 5 female students will experience attempted or completed sexual assault with freshmen women being at greatest risk.

Victims report their greatest frustration from police in dealing with stalking incidents. According to the OVC, 15 percent of women and 6 percent of men will experience stalking in their lifetime. The report added that “less than 40 percent of stalking victims reported that police took any action against their stalker; 32 percent of victims reported that law enforcement spoke to or warned the offender while just 7 percent reported that their stalker had been arrested.”

In addition to help from police and prosecutors, victims of crime in North Carolina can find help through the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network. This organization’s website includes a large array of resources, programs and training. It can be contacted at www.nc-van.org.

Contact Bill Hand at bill.hand@newbernsj.com, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.