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How victim rights became a juggernaut shaping spending, laws and the future of punishment

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The situation gradually began to change, starting with tough new laws dealing with domestic violence. Thanks largely to pressure from grassroots activists outraged by violence against women, Colorado became a pioneer in requiring arrest and treatment programs for batterers. Groups focusing on other crimes — Mothers Against Drunk Driving, campaigns targeting sexual assault and child abuse — also began to make their presence felt. COVA was incorporated as a board-run entity in 1982; Lewis became its first executive director in 1994.

In 1992, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to formally acknowledge that victims and surviving family members "have the right to be heard when relevant, informed and present at all critical stages of the criminal justice process." The Victim Rights Act, which has been amended five times since its creation, requires law enforcement agencies to keep victims apprised at every step of an offender's journey through the system, from arrest and preliminary hearings to parole matters or an upcoming release from prison or jail. The system has a review board for victims who have a complaint about their treatment and even a legal clinic, started by COVA, that can intervene in a criminal case on a victim's behalf.

Cannata now runs a nonprofit called Voices for Victims that provides transportation to parole hearings and other post-conviction services for crime victims. Over the years, he and other victim-rights crusaders have pushed for additional legislation to address sentencing inadequacies and related issues. Cannata is particularly proud of "Lynn's Law," passed in 2004, which requires violent felons in Colorado to serve at least 75 percent of their sentence before parole eligibility. Other changes to the parole process have eliminated offenders' ability to waive a hearing without advance notice or to apply for halfway-house placement right after being denied parole.

The new legislation has created special revenue streams designed to benefit victims — and, in some cases, to make offenders pay in new ways for their crimes. Colorado has had a victim-compensation program in place since 1981, which provides up to $20,000 to a crime victim for out-of-pocket medical expenses, property damage, burial costs or other losses not covered by insurance. The program is funded by surcharges imposed in court cases, ranging from $33 for a misdemeanor traffic offense to $163 for a felony, that are independent of any additional restitution the court might order. The program also receives millions in federal funds (including nearly $900,000 buried in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). In all, federal and state victim-compensation funds awarded $14.25 million to 7,758 Colorado crime victims in fiscal year 2010, an average of less than $2,000 per claim.

Other federal funds flow into the state through Victim of Crime Act grant awards ($6.65 million in 2011, for services ranging from bilingual counseling of victims in Eagle County to hiring prosecutors who specialize in domestic-violence cases in La Junta) and Violence Against Women Act awards ($1.9 million in 2011). Another pot of state money comes from a second surcharge on criminal defendants, which funds Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement programs operated by public agencies and private groups. This year the Colorado Department of Public Safety will dole out $1.2 million in VALE grants directly to various agencies; another $13 million in VALE funds are dispensed by local boards in the state's 22 judicial districts, appointed by the chief judge in each district.

The VALE money is the lifeblood of many victim groups, which compete for funding awarded by the local boards. Some of the awards go directly to victim services, such as a rape crisis hotline or a safehouse for battered women. But there are plenty of other uses for the cash, too. By statute, district attorneys, who are barred from the local VALE boards but are expected to administer the awards, can charge up to 10 percent in administrative costs. Add to that the awards made directly to their offices, to police departments and related entities, and fully one-third of the $13 million goes to government employees rather than victims.

VALE funds pay the salaries of many victim advocates in district attorneys' offices and police departments. They pay for digital cameras purchased by the Otero County Sheriff's Office and anatomically correct dolls used by the Firestone Police Department in investigating allegations of child sexual assault. And they pay for cops and prosecutors across the state to attend training and conferences sponsored by COVA and other groups, on topics such as "Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault," "Supporting Victims of Identity Theft" and "Officer Involved Shootings and PTSD." In 2010, VALE funds paid out $289,186 for various organizations just to attend COVA conferences; the salaries of the nonprofit's top employees (including Lewis), as well as an intern program operated by COVA that trains students to work with victim advocates in public agencies, are also supported by VALE grants.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast