Wisconsin crime victim services keep busy, face challenges
November 1, 2023
Western Wisconsin counties have few crime victim services mandated by the state. Crime victim services is a term that encapsulates all programs and services that help crime victims return, as much as possible, to a normal life after a crime was committed. People working in these services face challenges like burnout, staffing, and funding.
Victim witness coordinators have many state victim services that they can suggest to crime victims. These programs include a crime victim compensation program, VINE, which informs victims of their offender's custody status; “Safe at Home,” which is a statewide address confidentiality program; victim appellate notification services, which notifies victims of any appeals being made; and DOC NOTIS, which provides offender information, including anticipated release date, upcoming parole review, and other things.
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Victim Service Provider Survey from 2017, approximately 12,200 providers serve victims throughout the United States. In Wisconsin, Pepin, Polk, St. Croix, and Pierce counties have a combined total of 8 victim service providers. The survey defines victim service providers as organizations that serve victims of crime or abuse as their primary function or had dedicated staff or programs to serve victims. These organizations can include government organizations, non-profit organizations, hospitals, campuses, and others.
This survey also measures how many victims the providers serve. Pepin serves the least number of victims, with 18 per 1,000 people, though Pepin does have the smallest county population. Pierce serves the most victims with 32 per 1,000 people.
Rachel Morgan, a statistician from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), said in an email that “the reason this survey is done is to better help the federal government distribute money through the Victims of Crime Act to support these services. This data can also help federal, state, and local governments to make “data-driven” decisions in programming and funding.”
When asked if there is a baseline to determine whether a county has enough victim service providers, Morgan wrote, “The goal of National Survey of Victim Service Providers was not for BJS to determine if an area has enough victim services. The main goal is to fill in important gaps in the collective understanding of victim service providers and the victims they serve.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics has plans to conduct a census through the Office for Victims of Crime website in the fall of 2023. The official survey results will take a few years from now.
Victim witness offices are funded by the county even though each office is required by state law. “I think the funding is more the reimbursement part,” said David William, the Polk County Victim Witness Coordinator. “We are required to be here. The biggest funding we get is from the state; we get I think it's something like 40%, so not even quite half of what we spend here in Polk County we get reimbursed for. The wages are part of that reimbursement.”
Pam Bellrich, the St. Croix County Victim Witness Coordinator, added, “I wish that there were more funding resources out there, but it is pretty limited, and our reimbursement from the state is always in flux. It used to be that when the programs started, [the state paid] around 90%, and the county only had to pay about 10%. But through the years, since the mid-90s, it's down to like 44% now, so it has shifted…. We have recently received information that the state is going to be reimbursing at a higher rate, but who knows? I'll believe that when I see it.”
Marsy’s Law is another thing that directly affects all Victim Witness Coordinators on a day-to-day basis. Marsy’s Law added to victims' rights by allowing victims to be notified of an offender's release and of all criminal case proceedings.
Sue Burr, a Pierce County victim witness coordinator, said, “With the implementation of Marsy’s Law, victims now are notified of every single hearing. Once somebody has been arrested, we notify the victims; we have to call them and let them know the charges that they are appearing for a bail bond hearing, and that they have a right to attend and address the court on bond.”
The controversial amendment to Wisconsin’s constitution was passed in 2020.
“For the 25 years that I have been doing this, I have always felt that the system is lopsided for victims versus defendants,” Bellrichard said. “I know with the addition of Marsy's Law…. It has helped increase the standing of victims in courtrooms and in court proceedings. But [with] the way the constitution is, I feel like the defendants are always just going to tip the scales with having more rights in the courtroom. But I am okay… with [victims’] ability to be heard at every hearing, to attend every hearing, to speak to the judge at the time of sentencing. We have come a long way with victims’ rights and access to court proceedings for victims, so that is a huge plus. But I think that constitutionally it's always going to be different defendants rights versus victims rights.”
All three victim witness coordinators mentioned how people in the field frequently struggle with mental health issues, burnout, and language barriers, and also how victims often struggle to find transportation for court dates.
“We are in this profession because we are wired to help people. I wouldn't still be doing this if I didn't still care about people and want to help people,” Bellrichard said. “I think that I can speak for everybody in victim services when I say that's what it's all about is just trying to help people as much as we can.”
For more reporting on this topic, visit uwrfjournalism.org/2023/08/crime-victim-services/.