Carol found that both the legal proceedings and the laws themselves were far from perfect – representing an objectionable pairing of too much protection for offenders with too little justice for victims. As her son Jason struggled with the effects of a traumatic brain injury, the men who assaulted him were protected as youths and thus shielded from any real punishment. Adding insult to injury, the court system seemed to impede Carol’s quest just to stay informed of any legal activity concerning her son’s assault.
However difficult, Carol’s mission for justice uncovered a valuable legal tool called a “victim’s impact statement.” The statement, which can be either written or oral, allows victims of crime and their families to participate in the criminal justice system by articulating the pain, anguish, and financial hardship resulting from the crime. The victim’s impact statement provides the court with critical information, which helps the judge determine the appropriate sentences and restitution.
Carol prepared a victim’s impact statement, communicating how the crime affected her family. Jason also wrote a statement describing the assault and its impact on him from his point of view. By expressing their own stories, Carol and Jason added a personal dimension to the crime, taking it from an abstract event to something devastatingly real.
“I found that the victim’s impact statement played a big, big portion of how the turnout was for this kid (the accused),” Carol said.
“Because of the impact statement, the probation officer recommended more happen besides straight probation, which is basically what the Juvenile Justice Act is,” Carol said, adding that the DA finally stood up for her and echoed the probation officer’s recommendations.
“The judge sentenced the kid to 60 days in jail and 3 years probation. I found out that 3 years is the maximum probation he could do. Also, the 60-day incarceration was practically unheard of in juvenile cases.”
Carol said that Miriam Shehane, the founder of Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) attended some of the hearings. “She has done a lot for crime victims by taking her tragedy and turning it around as an advocate. I feel now that I’ve been through enough to share my own story and get in front of the legislature and speak on behalf of other crime victims and their families. It’s important to let people know what crime victims go through in dealing with the criminal justice system,” Carol said.
Now Carol also has joined the ranks of those advocating for the rights of victims. She has spoken with Alabama Attorney General Troy King about the rights of victims and has joined the Crime Victims’ Task Force, which seeks ways to make the Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights enforceable and to toughen current legislation for offenders.
The Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights helps victims of crime navigate through the bureaucratic and often confusing court system.
“Many victims complain about not being notified or informed about the progress of a case or what they can do to help their case, like the victim’s impact statement. In most cases, no one tells you what you can do. Nobody sits down with you and goes over the crime victim’s bill of rights. You don’t know what to expect – what the steps and stages are,” Carol explained.
“For instance, many victims miss the final sentencing because they aren’t aware that it is the final chance they have to speak out and tell their story; to make their statement,” Carol said.
Carol is currently working with the Attorney General’s office to make the bill of rights enforceable, so that “victims will have recourse if they find their rights were violated or if they were not properly informed,” Carol said.
“Right now, there is nothing in Alabama law that if a victim’s rights are violated that they can do anything about it. That’s what this task force is about – somehow making these rights enforceable. By developing a consequence for NOT properly informing victims, hopefully this will make the system work the way it ought to and help put in place a working system for keeping victims informed and involved in the process,” Carol said.
“And then, if you go through the system a second time, it’s the same. You think it will be different the second time. You think it will be better, but it’s the same thing. You are violated by this system all over again,” she said.
“Under the current system, victims and their advocates are normally overwhelmed with other tasks, and nobody in the court system is dedicated to this part of the legal process,” Carol explained. “The victim falls through the cracks.”
Next: Jason’s Story Part 4 – Changing minds and changing laws