Friday, March 5, 2010

Not just repeal of the death penalty: meeting the needs of victims

Earlier this week, MVFHR board chair VIcki Schieber testified in Maryland in support of a bill that would expand training for police officers on informing homicide victims' families about the availability of services and counseling in the state. Here is her testimony:

In 2008 I was appointed by Governor O'Malley to serve on the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. You know that this Commission recommended repeal of Maryland's death penalty

Today I am here to discuss a lesser known recommendation of the same Commission, which was to increase the services and resources already provided to families of murder victims.

I served on the Commission's Victims Subcommittee. It was made up of three Commission members who were survivors of homicide victims. We were asked by the full Commission to study what information was available and assess the needs of Maryland homicide survivors. A copy of our report is attached to my testimony. The three of us were unanimous about the need for a more statewide approach to meeting the needs of homicide survivors. One key need identified speaks directly in support of SB 820:

"Training for law enforcement both at the entry-level and in-service training for experienced officers must explicitly include dealing with the survivors of homicide and the rights of crime victims. Under Public Safety Article section 3, there are training provisions for rape and sexual assault, however it is important that these provisions be expanded to include homicide offenses, and contract and treatment of homicide survivors."

The reason we emphasized police training is that police usually make first contact with family members and they often make ONLY official contact. This is true in murders where no one is arrested, and thus the family never has contact with State's Attorney's offices, which have their own victims' coordinators.

Based on these Maryland Commission and the Victims' Subcommittee recommendations, the 2009 death penalty repeal bill included intent language urging expanded servies to survivors of homicide victims, and directed the Governor's Office on Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP) to deliver a report by Nov. 1, 2009 to the House Judiciary and to this Committee on "how victim services for the homicide survivors should be expanded."

In this Nov. 1st report, also attached to this testimony, GOCCP conducted a pilot survey. Although the sample was small, it is noteworthy that "68% of survivors responding said they did NOT receive any information from law enforcement officers regarding the availability of services in their respective communities." Thus, one of the GOCCP recommended in this report that Maryland "expand and enhance training for law enforcement officials working with homicide victims."

SB 820 does what was urged by the Commission and the GOCCP reports by requiring uniform, routine training for police officers across our state so they become equipped to inform ALL Maryland crime victims of their rights and available services.

I support SB 820 as a step on the path to justice and healing for victims. I am honored to do so so that our state can move beyond vague sentiments about being tough on crime and seeking justice for victims and look closely at what actions would prevent violence or help victims heal in the aftermath of violence. In honor of my daughter, my family is committed to seeking not just the elimination of the death penalty, but meaningful change like SB 820 which truly serves the needs of survivors.

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