Kandiyohi County, Minn., gives crime victims the opportunity to have a voice
WILLMAR -- Whether someone is the target of a terrifying physical assault or vandalism, they have something in common -- they are victims and they have rights.
Victims of crime "didn't ask to be in this position," said Bridget Pederson, victim services coordinator for Kandiyohi County.
Being tossed into the complicated world of investigators, prosecutors, and courts can be overwhelming and confusing for victims of crimes, said Pederson during a recent presentation to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.
"They have a right to know what's going on," she said. "My role is to make sure victims know their rights and their role in that process."
This year Pederson's role as victim services coordinator expanded from working only in the county attorney's office to working jointly with the county attorney, the Sheriff's Office and Community Corrections Department.
County Administrator Larry Kleindl said the change was made in order to make the position more accessible and useful to other county agencies and give it more exposure to the public.
"It's been a tremendous success," Kleindl said.
County Attorney Jenna Fischer said Pederson far exceeded expectations in the expanded role.
"She's a real asset to the county and every victim she assists," Fischer said.
Pederson said she is an advocate for people who have been victims of crimes ranging from "shoplifting to murder" and serves as a liaison between victims and the legal system.
Sometimes she's also the buffer between a victim and the offender.
In physical assault cases, she can help victims find the resources they need to stay safe at home or at work and to prevent future contact with the offender.
For property crimes she can help coordinate opportunities for victims to meet with offenders where apologies can be offered.
She has read impact statements in court on behalf of the victims when it was too difficult for them to do so. She listens to victims' concerns, finds answers to their questions about the criminal justice system and walks them through the process.
"I help victims figure out what's going on," she said.
Some of the rights Pederson makes sure victims are aware of include:
- The right to be notified of any plea agreement or appeal by the defendant, release or escape from prison, proposed sentencing modifications and restitution.
- The right to protection from harm -- like having a secure waiting area during court proceedings and having home and work contact information withheld in open court.
- The right to participate in prosecution, including objecting to a plea agreement or proposed sentence and telling the court of the social and economic impact the crime had on people, businesses and community.
- The right to apply for financial assistance if the victim has suffered economic loss because of the crime, and the right to restitution.
- Additional rights afforded to domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment victims, such as access to sexual assault examinations at no charge, requesting HIV testing of the offender and the ability to terminate a lease without penalty or payment.
Perhaps more important than informing victims about the legal aspects is being sensitive to the people and the impact the crimes have had on their lives, Pederson said.
Utilizing the victim rights coordinator position with three separate county entities is part of Kleindl's overall plan to streamline county operations and maximize staff and resources without duplicating services.
"We're really trying to knock the silos down in the county," Kleindl said.
In Pederson's case she has offices in each of the three sites in order to work closely with each entity and get the information that victims need about each step of the criminal process.
Kleindl said he and the county department heads are continuing to work on models for other streamlining measures that could serve county residents without duplication of services.
For more information about victim services in Kandiyohi County call Bridget Pederson at 320-231-2440 ext. 5827