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

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Although COVA does have an emergency fund to assist victims directly when other sources have been exhausted, most of its energy is devoted to training and conferences; those activities provide its main source of revenue, apart from government grants. "That's a very big part of the mission, to see that the person dealing with a crime victim has good training," Lewis explains. "In other states, agencies that provide that training on a statewide level are housed in the governor's office. Being a nonprofit, we don't have to switch things around every time the governor switches."

Privately, grassroots groups have suggested that some of the state money expended on law enforcement training could be better spent on more immediate victim needs. But Cannata, whose fledgling group receives a trickle of VALE funds but also relies on donations and fundraisers in restaurants, doesn't have a problem with the arrangement. "I think the training is important to victims because it makes these people more victim-sensitive," he says. "It reminds them of the trauma the victim is going through."

Yet COVA's close interactions with police and prosecutors, as well as its organizational makeup, have led some to question whether it has sufficient independence from its government sponsors. Its current fifteen-member board of directors includes six people who work for district attorneys, three police department employees and four other employees of city or state agencies. Lewis also sits on the Crime Victim Services Advisory Board, which advises the Colorado Department of Public Safety on the distribution of various state and federal victim grants. That board, too, is dominated by government interests; one member identified as a "community representative" works for the Denver district attorney.

Howard Morton calls Lewis "a good gal" but believes COVA's priorities reflect the composition of its board. "Most of the board, and certainly most of the executive committee, is made up of DAs or employees of DAs," he says. "Where your paycheck comes from influences you a lot."

Morton's group, Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, has its share of disputes with prosecutors and law enforcement, particularly over the amount of resources allocated to unsolved murder cases. "Quite a few of our members are upset with district attorneys who would not prosecute their cases and left them to remain cold," he notes. When Colorado voters considered an exemption from term limits for district attorneys a few years ago, COVA came out for the measure. Morton opposed it, and wrote what he calls "a very strong letter" to Lewis asking how the board could take such a position without consulting the organization's membership.

Lewis laments that term limits ever passed. "My belief — and this is my belief, not a COVA belief — is that with term limits at the legislature and for district attorneys and even some sheriffs, we have seen a real erosion of people who understand victims' rights," she says.

As for her board of directors being stacked with prosecutors and cops, Lewis says the board includes crime victims, too. "They don't wear something on their forehead that says 'I'm a victim,'" she notes. "Most of them do come out of law enforcement, but our concerns are not system-driven. I think we have parted company with the DAs several times."

To critics like Cain, though, COVA appears to be an unofficial lobbying arm for state prosecutors. "Is it appropriate," she asks, "for this organization, which is really a district attorneys' organization, to get all this money and hire a lobbyist and claim to be an independent group?"

Only a "very, very, very tiny part of our budget" goes to lobbying efforts, Lewis says, and prosecutors scoff at the idea that COVA is a front for their own agenda. Still, the nonprofit and the district attorneys' council often seem to speak with one voice in the legislature — even if, behind the scenes, victims and prosecutors frequently disagree about plea bargains and sentencing options, how vigorously cases are investigated or developed, and other issues.

The fact that prosecutors often claim to represent victims or "speak" for them in legislative matters troubles Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett. "Advocating for victims is very much a part of the role of the district attorney," says Garnett. "However, district attorneys are not lawyers for victims. Our job is to seek justice and do the right thing in individual cases, and that sometimes means we approve a resolution to a case that the victim doesn't want. We all run across victims who are motivated by personal revenge and other motives that are improper. Victims need to be heard, but they don't control the process."

The same goes for sentencing reform and other legislative battles, he adds. "There are a lot of groups that have emerged that do nothing but be a voice for victims," he says. "That's not the role we should play in legislation."

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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