Every year, law enforcement personnel, those involved in the criminal justice system and crime victim advocates commemorate National Crime Victims Rights Week in late April.
The theme of this year’s commemoration is “Extending the Vision, Reaching Every Victim.” Wisconsin has a long history of concern for crime victim rights. In fact, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to enact a crime victim bill of rights.
In this legislative session, a number of new laws have been passed that will help reach more crime victims in their time of need. In addition, there is discussion underway as to the best way to use and collect DNA.
In Wisconsin, victim and witness services are coordinated by the Department of Justice and local county victim services professionals. The Department of Justice’s website (www.doj.wi.gov) has links to resources for crime victims and their family members. Their website also contains specific links to county victim service agencies.
In many ways, protecting crime victims means more than the services that are provided after crimes occur. It involves efforts to reduce crime in the first place. According to data collected by the Office of Justice Assistance, between 2009 and 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there was a slight drop in the overall crime rate in Wisconsin as well as a 6 percent drop in both the violent crime rate and the property crime rate. The two biggest changes that year were a 23 percent increase in arson and a 9 percent decrease in motor vehicle theft Some of the bills that became law this session are part of the effort to reduce crime.
In 1993 an amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution was approved by voters that said “This state shall treat crime victims, as defined by law, with fairness, dignity and respect for their privacy.” Out of this constitutional amendment came the creation of the Wisconsin Crime Victim Rights Board. Since 1999, the board has received about 40 complaints.
A 2005 court decision said that this constitutional amendment was a statement of the state’s values, but was not specifically enforceable. One of the bills that was passed this session, Assembly Bill 232 is an effort to make the rights of crime victims and witnesses clearer and stronger and more closely aligned to the 1993 constitutional amendment. It prohibits public agencies or agents from releasing any information that could identify a victim or witness for purposes unrelated to official business.
This new law also allows crime victims to seek redress through the court system.
Another new law, Assembly Bill 379, protects the identity of victims of domestic violence and stalking by allowing them to keep a name change confidential. Under prior law, petitions for name changes had to be published in the newspaper three times before they could go into effect. The new law requires the court to determine if the request for a confidential name change is because of a concern for personal safety and includes provisions to notify local governments of the confidential name change. Four other states allow confidential name changes.
Finally, looking toward next session, Governor Scott Walker has asked the attorney general to develop a plan for collecting DNA from certain crime suspects at the time of their arrest so that the plan can be included in the next state budget. Under current law, people convicted of felonies, certain misdemeanors and those found to be sexually violent must submit a DNA sample that is housed at the Department of Justice’s crime lab. One of my state senate colleagues has been working on this issue for the last couple of years and between her work and that of the attorney general, I am confident a plan can be developed that will be fair, effective and cost-efficient.