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Crime victims' rights the focus of training the co. is offering

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WILLMAR -- The reality of how law enforcement officers and the criminal justice system work is different than what people see on television.

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How officers, prosecutors and victim advocates handle those myths and misconceptions is important, according to Suzanne Elwell, director of the crime victim justice unit at the state Department of Public Safety.

"The television shows give people an idea of how (they think the system) works," she said.

Crime victims assume that all law enforcement interventions lead to an arrest, that cases are investigated immediately and that the victims get to know what's happening during a police investigation.

The truth is that not every crime is investigated, that law enforcement agencies make decisions about allocation of resources and sometimes no one is arrested or charged.

Elwell was one of several presenters at a victim rights and resources training session recently at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building in Willmar.

In opening the session, County Attorney Jenna Fischer explained that she is expanding the role of the county victim services coordinator, Bridget Pederson, to work not only with the county attorney's office, but also the sheriff's office and county probation officials.

Pederson serves as the point of contact for crime victims from their first contact with law enforcement officers through the prosecution and probation of the defendant, she explained.

"This is showing us a need for education of our partners in the community," Fischer said at Tuesday's session.

Elwell stressed that the rights for all crime victims, no matter the level of charge or whether the crime was committed by a juvenile or adult, are spelled out in state statute.

"Our statutory rights are mandatory," she said. "I don't have to ask for them. I don't have to opt in for them."

The notification rights include the right to be notified of the prosecution process, plus the right to participate and be notified of changes in court hearing schedules. Victims also have the right to be notified if charges aren't filed or are dismissed.

The participation portion of victim rights includes the right to be present at hearings, request a speedy trial, to object to a plea agreement or proposed sentence and give a victim impact statement at sentencing.

After sentencing, victims can use two state database systems for information on their offender. The VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) system at www.vinelink.com is a searchable database that allows a person to be notified by phone or email regarding an offender's status. The Minnesota Choice (www.minnesotachoice.com) system allows citizens to set up an account, monitor the offender's status and access victim resources.

The Minnesota Crime Victims Reparations Board provides up to $50,000 to assist victims with out-of-pocket expenses that are a direct result of a serious crime. The crimes covered include violent crimes like homicide, assault, domestic abuse, sexual assault, child abuse, kidnapping, arson, robbery, harassment/stalking, felony hit and run vehicle crashes, driving while impaired and criminal vehicular operation.

The board works with almost every family of homicide victims in the state, according to Danielle Kitto, claims manager for the board, which is part of the Office of Justice Programs, Department of Public Safety. "We are in touch with them within days of the death because of the funeral costs," she said.

The board paid out $2.4 million in the 2010 fiscal year, with 50 percent of the funding from state sources, 30 percent federal grant money and 20 percent from restitution payments or civil lawsuit settlements. Get more information at www.ojp.state.mn.us.

The training session also included information from Dianna Stair, the administrator of the Safe at Home program, which provides address confidentiality to victims of domestic abuse, stalking or anyone who fears for their safety. The state-funded program, part of the Secretary of State's office, began in 2007 and has served 1,110 people. Currently, 750 people participate in the program. Get more information at www.sos.state.mn.us.

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Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

(320) 214-4373
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