Every year, millions of people have their lives changed forever by crime. “They are our family members, neighbors, friends and colleagues,” says Jodie Spooner, program director of the Office of Victim Assistance for the Tifton Judicial Circuit. Today kicks off National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (April 6-12), a time to reach out and help crime victims rebuild their lives.
The local Office of Victim Assistance is made up of Spooner, Victim Advocate Latricia Sumner and Administrative Assistant Pat McKinnon. They serve Irwin, Tift, Turner and Worth counties. Spooner said in the past five years, their program has served 1,519 crime victims in Tift County.
“Our program is a prosecution-based victim services program which began in 1987 with the late Ms. Mary Blount Meeler as our first director,” she said. “Over the past 27 years, the Office of Victims Assistance has informed crime victims of their rights, educated victims on services and programs available to them and walked victims through the criminal judicial process.”
She said in addition to keeping victims informed about their criminal case, advocates also provide emotional support. Advocates accompany victims to court proceedings, lineups, law enforcement and prosecutor interviews. Victims who are eligible to receive compensation through the Georgia Crime Victims Compensation Program are assisted with the application process.
“Many times when we hear ‘crime victim’ we think of violent crimes, however the non-violent crimes, such as identity theft or financial card fraud, are becoming more prevalent. Therefore, more and more people are becoming victims of crime and they need to know their rights as such,” Spooner said. “Victims need to know that they have a right to be a part of the process.”
She explained that only 30 years ago, crime victims had virtually no rights and no assistance. The criminal justice system often seemed indifferent to their needs. Victims were commonly excluded from courtrooms and denied the chance to speak at sentencing. They had no access to victim compensation or services to help rebuild their lives. There were few avenues to deal with their emotional and physical wounds. Victims were on their own to recover their health, security and dignity.
She said today, the nation has made dramatic progress in securing rights, protections and services for victims. Every state has enacted victims’ rights laws and all have victim compensation programs. More than 10,000 victim service agencies now help people throughout the country.
In 1984, Congress passed the bipartisan Victims of Crime Act, which created a national fund to ease victims’ suffering. Financed not by taxpayers but by fines and penalties paid by offenders, the Crime Victims Fund supports victim services, such as rape crisis and domestic violence programs and victim compensation programs that pay many of victims’ out-of-pocket expenses from the crime. This includes counseling, funeral expenses and lost wages.
“Victims’ rights advocates have scored remarkable victories over the last 30 years. But, there is still a lot of work to be done,” Spooner said.
For more information or to volunteer, call the Office of Victim Assistance at 386-7903 or visit www.VictimsofCrime.org.
To contact reporter Latasha Ford, call 382-4321.