Originally created 07/11/97

Victims advocates discuss training, legal developments



Just as crime suspects have certain legal rights, victims of crimes in Georgia have certain rights, including access to financial compensation.

Thursday at Augusta Technical Institute, about 30 victim advocates gathered to hear about recent legal developments and brush up on training provided by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Some of newest changes in victims' rights law concerns the Crime Victim Compensation Program.

When the compensation became available to victims of violent crime in 1990, the maximum was $1,000 and victims only had six months to apply, said Sheila Stahl, victim assistance program coordinator at the Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney's office.

Although $1,000 was better than nothing, it didn't go far in covering many cases, and many victims lost out because they didn't know about the program before the time expire to apply, she said.

But now, victims of violent crime can receive up to $10,000, and starting this year, the statue of limitation spans two years.

Compensation is limited, however, to victims of violent crime or their parents/guardians; good Samaritans injured while trying to help someone else, including law enforcement officers and regular citizens; and anyone who assumes the debt related to a violent crime.

The violent crimes covered are homicide, any type of assault including sexual assault, child molestation and child abuse, drunken driving crashes, and domestic violence, said Shennille Scott, investigator with the Victim Compensation Program.

"But, if the victim has contributed to the crime, we don't pay," Ms. Scott said Thursday. For example, a person shot while dealing drugs wouldn't be compensated, and if he is shot and killed, the family couldn't be compensated either, she said.

Victims must have reported the crime within 72 hours - although exceptions are made in cases such as when victims are physically incapacitated or such as child molestation cases when victims often remain quiet out of fear; victims must cooperate with prosecutors; and victims must apply for compensation, Ms. Scott said. Compensation isn't tied to arrest or conviction, however, she said.

The program doesn't compensate for property loses, although exceptions are made for items such as eyeglasses or hearing aides damaged in an attack, Ms. Scott said. The program helps victims, and family members of homicide victims and people living in a home where domestic violence has occurred, with medical, counseling, funeral and loss of support expenses. In addition, victims of violent crime can receive compensation for lost wages, Ms. Scott said.

"It's compensation of last resort," Ms. Scott said. The program only steps in after other sources such as insurance and public assistance is tapped, Ms. Scott said, and all expenses must be documented and verified.

In 1995, the program paid out $400,000 in compensation, said Derek L. Marchman, program director. In 1996, that increased to $1.1 million, and $2.1 million is set aside for 1997, he said.

And as public awareness has increased, so has the number of victims applying for compensation - 700 in 1995 and 1,300 in 1996, Mr. Marchman said.

Although victim assistance programs at the prosecutors' offices see many victims and can tell them of the compensation program and help them apply, law enforcement officers are on the front lines of the push to get the information out to crime victims, Mr. Marchman said.

Ms. Stahl said she printed 20,000 information cards about victims' rights and gave them to the Richmond County Sheriff's Department. While she may not see a victim until after an arrest or indictment, officers see every victim, she said.

Officers can now carry cards with Miranda Rights - right to remain silent, etc. - on one side and victims rights on the other.

"I don't want to bash them (officers) because they've come a long way," Mr. Marchman said. Each officer now going through the mandatory training at the law enforcement center takes a course in victims' rights, he said. "That's the key. It's more or less all education."