State grant improves crime victim safety

Crime victims will be able to log onto the Internet to learn about the detention status or release date of their assailant under a new program funded through a federal Victims of Crime Act assistance grant.

Almost $1 million has gone into a program that, with cooperation of sheriff's departments across the state, will purchase and install software that tracks the status of prisoners and automatically notifies victims of any release date. The Victim/Offender Information Computer Enhancement (VOICE) will provide a victim, advocate or nonprofit agency information through a secured system that allows for limited access through a personal identification number (PIN) issued at the time a victim notifies law enforcement officers a crime has occurred.

Moffat County officials will take the program a step further. According to Victim/Witness Coordinator Sherri Ferree, the district attorney's office is installing new software that will allow the office to download the status of court cases into the VOICE system so victims can follow the process as well as the detention status of a convict.

The 1992 Victims Rights Act required that crime victims, at their request, must be notified of the status of a suspect's case and detention. That notification is done across the state by corrections facilities and in Moffat County Ferree keeps victims up-to-date.

"I don't think the program will take over victims' notification," she said. "I do think it will be a great tool to help with victims' notification."

According to Rob Gallup, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, the problem is some counties only make a token attempt at victim notification.

"There is a real weakness in the system," he said. "Some counties only call once or twice. Leaving it up to sheriff's departments led to inconsistencies from one county to another."

Rather than a duplication of services, he said, the program will provide continuity in victim notification across the state.

What it does, Ferree said, is reduce the personalization of notification calls.

"I don't think we could ever do away with the personal touch," she said.

According to Gallup, officers, advocates or case workers can tag a VOICE system file to prevent computer-generated calls and allow for only personal calls on the cases.

The program will also offer page links to Internet sites on victims' rights and term definition.

One thing lacking in the system is counseling and follow-up common in some counties' victims' notification programs. Ferree said she spends time with victims explaining anything about the process they don't understand. Also, if a victim has moved or has had a telephone changed or disconnected, she has the resources to attempt to find them a computer does not.

That lack of personal response is one of the reasons Advocates-Crisis Support Services Director Pat Tessmer has mixed feelings about the program.

"It takes the responsibility for notification off the courts and puts it on the victim," she said. "We're assuming that victims have access and knowledge of computers."

Despite what Gallup calls a repair to the lack of consistent notification, Tessmer sees the program as a duplication of the service counties are already obligated to provide by law.

"This is extremely important and it's mandated by law that victims be notified every step of the way," she said. "I don't know if I feel a computer is the right way to do it."

Tessmer does like the advantage of being able to find out at any time the status of a court case.

The system has several safety features including limited access and notification protocol. VOICE withholds specific information until the victim confirms his or her identity or keys in the correct PIN. It automatically detects answering devices and leaves a general message for the victim or witness to return the call. The system can call many different phone numbers, including cellular phones and pagers, and can call each number several times.

Ferree said the system will free her from calls about non-essential cases such as traffic accidents or break-ins and allow her more time to deal with some tougher cases. She handles an average of 20 cases each week and said some days it feels like all she does is victim notification.

Gallup estimates it will take one to two years to complete the project, but said county jails should be in the system and running by the close of 2000.

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