By Lee Darragh
District attorney of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit
As a new assistant district attorney in 1979, I started my prosecution career in Savannah, Chatham County. In that office at that time, there was established one of the first victim/witness advocacy programs in the state of Georgia.
Through its auspices, as a prosecutor, I was able to better communicate with victims and witnesses, arrange for their appearances in court and help guide them through the process, giving victims, in particular, a greater voice than they had ever had in the previous 200 years in the American criminal justice system.
Because of that program’s success and other factors, victim advocacy spread across Georgia. No longer would the entire focus of the criminal justice system be focused only on the important protection of the rights of criminal defendants. Victims were no longer just witnesses in their own cases but were recognized as having rights themselves.
When I first came to Gainesville to prosecute in our circuit, the DA’s office had but one victim advocate serving four counties. Now, across the present two counties of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, Hall and Dawson, we have seven victim advocates serving in Superior Court, two in Juvenile Court, one serving as the director of the program and as the initial victim outreach advocate and yet another serving as the advocate for victim compensation, for a total of 11 advocates actively serving victims of crime full time, increasing their voice in the system.
This is not even to mention additional advocates in the Hall County Solicitor’s Office. Much of the DA’s program is supported by grant money and other sources rather than the coffers of the counties.
Moreover, the General Assembly recognized and ensured victims’ rights by statute, and even through a Georgia Constitutional Amendment, ensuring in even a more permanent way the rights of victims.
In today’s criminal justice system, through the Georgia Crime Victims Bill of Rights, victims are entitled to notification of an accused’s arrest, release, judicial proceedings and violations of electronic release and monitoring programs.
Victims are entitled to be notified of the availability of victims compensation and services, to be notified of proceedings where an accused’s release is being considered and to file a written complaint in the event of release.
Specifically related to prosecutors, victims are to be notified of the procedural steps in prosecuting a criminal case, including the right to restitution, of the rights and procedures of victims, suggested procedures if the victim is subjected to threats or intimidation, the names and telephone numbers of the contact persons at both the office of the custodial authority and in the prosecuting attorney’s office, and of the investigation agency.
Victims are afforded the right to either be interviewed or to decline to be interviewed by the accused’s attorney or agent and the right to be present at all criminal proceedings at which the accused is entitled to be present.
Among many other additional rights, victims have the right to express an opinion on the disposition of the accused’s case, including plea or sentence negotiations, and participation in pretrial or post-conviction diversion programs. They even are afforded rights related to appeals and parole issues. Moreover, this is not an exhaustive list of rights.
All of a victim’s statutory rights are found in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated Title 17, Chapter 17, and in other places throughout the Georgia Code.
In the pandemic year of 2020, our program continued in full swing. The Victim Advocacy Program in the DA’s program had over 53,000 documented contacts with victims and sent over 5,000 letters to carry out the requirements of the statutes and Constitution and to connect victims with community resources.
Acting as a liaison between the prosecutors in carrying out their statutory and constitutional duties, our Victim Advocates are an integral, essential part of our teams, including prosecutors, advocates, investigators and administrative personnel acting together to ensure justice for victims.
It would be hard to imagine how difficult prosecution would be without the dedication and compassion exhibited by our victim advocates.
As district attorney, I am very proud of my staff carrying out this work. Through them, victims have a voice and a right to be heard. So, as we honor and recognize victims during Crime Victims’ Rights Week, April 18-24, I too honor our victim advocate staff as they carry out this role.