The Multnomah County Board proclaimed April 8-14 as Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
The annual proclamation is part of local and national efforts to promote victims’ rights and services. In Oregon, the constitution and state statutes give crime victims more than 60 legal rights.
“We each have a role in treating crime victims with compassion and in honoring their rights. Every victim, every crime, every right, every time,” Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill said while reading the proclamation.
Victim services tends to be front-loaded in our criminal justice system, such as with community-based advocacy and at local district attorney’s offices, said Denise Pena, manager of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ) Crime Victims Services Unit.
“But any crime victim can tell you that their experience doesn’t end at a conviction,” Pena said “Our systems have a tendency to work in silos. A victims doesn’t get to have a siloed experience.”
Pena highlighted efforts the county and its partners are making to improve the experience of victims throughout the criminal justice process. In 2013, the county created the Crime Victims Services Unit, one of four community corrections departments of its kind in the state. Since then, the team of two has grown to 10 members.
The team ensures that victims’ rights are integrated in supervision practices, provides support and advocacy for those navigating the system, provides notification of critical stage hearings to those who have requested them, and has subject matter experts on staff who are familiar with topics such as Sex Trafficking and Domestic Violence.
“There is a culture shift happening with how community corrections engage with crime victims post-conviction,” Pena explained. “Progress can be slow at times, but we are moving in the right direction.”
As part the work ensuring victims have access to vital information as a case progresses, the Department works with Code for America, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, Oregon Department of Corrections, National Crime Victim Law Institute, and the Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision. It also relies on feedback from victims and launched a new service called Case Companion.
Case Companion is the first public website dedicated to helping crime victims no matter where in the system their cases might be, Pena said. It provides crucial information for victims, so that instead of waiting for a letter in the mail, victims can get connected with information and resources that are designed to help.
“For example, you can look up the status of an offender by yourself,” said Pena.
The site includes frequently asked questions on complex criminal justice terminology and provides contact information for trained subject matter experts. The information on the website is public information, Pena explained, but many victims had to use Google as a primary tool to find information before Case Companion.
“I look forward to the day where we can report out on how this little project that began in 2014 has expanded across the state and available to even more crime victims and survivors,” Pena said.
District Attorney Underhill highlighted the strong partnership in forging Case Companion, and the District Attorney’s Office’s work to eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault forensic evidence kits.
“As of the first of this month, 2,969 previously untested kits have been sent to the Sorenson lab for testing,” Underhill said. “About 2,500 of those have been tested and are making their way back to the County for evaluation.”
“We have sought and obtained permission to use additional funds to assist in the elimination of the remaining kits as well as kits throughout the state of Oregon,” he continued. “Oregon will join a very short number of states that has eliminated their backlog of kits.”
Board members thanked the presenters.
“Since I’ve been here on the board, I’ve had the honor of serving as chair of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) Committee on Human Trafficking,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “And that has opened my eyes to a lot of the ways that so many people are impacted when a crime like that happens. I appreciate not just this proclamation but the work that supports this.”
Chair Deborah Kafoury, who also serves as the co-chair of the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council commended the work of Case Companion.
“I was so interested in your presentation to the LPSCC on the victims portal,” Kafoury said, “and the way it allows people to take back some control of their experience. So the thought that we will be able to move this to a bigger, better platform statewide is really exciting as well.
“You have the support of this board and the community behind you.”