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In Ohio in 1978, Bob and Charlotte Hullinger began a support group called Parents of Murdered Children in the aftermath of the killing of their daughter. Candy Lightener, who established Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in 1980, had a daughter who was killed in California by a motorist with a history of driving under the influence. In Virginia, Marie Deans founded MVFR in 1976, after the slaying of her mother-in-law. Their purpose was twofold: to support one another in their grief, and to become involved in a justice system that seemed to have little use for them.
The victims' rights movement has been wildly successful. Every state now has statutes defining victims' rights. Laws got tougher, crime rates dropped, and the incarceration rate soared. The '90s saw Texas embark on the largest prison-building project in the history of the world. Victims' rights groups had much to do with that.
Vera Cronin of Gulf Area MADD remembers that when her son was killed in 1979 by a driver who'd been drinking, the penalty for a DWI was usually a night in jail. Drunk driving fatalities were generally treated as mere accidents. The motorist who hit Cronin's son was not prosecuted.
Through education and activism, MADD altered public perception and the laws against drunk driving. Its success formed the blueprint for how victims' rights groups could effect change.
Walk into any courthouse where an intoxication manslaughter or assault is being tried, and there's likely to be a MADD member there with the victim. They will have met with law enforcement and prosecutors about the case. Judges know they're watching.
There are lots of people looking out for victims today. Amy Smith has been director of the Harris County Victim Witness Program for five years. Her department is praised by local victims' groups.
"My job," says Smith, "is to make sure we comply with everything in Article 56, the victims' bill of rights." Smith's division functions as a buffer between victims and the court. Each month her six-person staff mails an "impact statement" to 2,000 new crime victims.
Smith's crew makes sure calls and questions get answered, and that victims are kept abreast of court dates. Her department has a comfortable waiting room in the courthouse, and they can even contact victims' bosses to explain why they need time off.
These advocates help fill out forms for victims' compensation, and they make referrals to social agencies and support groups. If property was taken, Smith's office can get it returned. They can even sit through the trial with victims.
Smith's office can't get involved until charges are filed, but the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Department each have victims' liaisons to provide earlier assistance if needed. The city has a victims' advocate, Andy Kahan, and the prison system has a division to help deal with paroles, executions and other victim-related prison issues.
None of this existed 25 years ago. It resulted from people like the Hullingers, Renny Cushing, Dianne Marino, Candy Lightener and thousands of other crime victims who created a grassroots crusade to force change. Victims' rights are now stronger than ever, but few victims believe they are strong enough. As the fundamental reforms have been achieved, the next battlefields for the movement become far less certain.
A proposed constitutional amendment would put victims' rights on par with those of defendants. It enjoys broad support, but some domestic violence organizations will not endorse it because of cases where a woman attacks her batterer; the question of who the victim is becomes muddled in those situations. MVFR is insisting on a provision prohibiting discrimination against victims who oppose the death penalty.
There is not wide agreement on the exact direction and scope for the movement. Many of the original activists are retired. Others no longer feel a part of what they created. Lightener, for example, has testified against MADD in hearings about lowering intoxication levels for DUI offenses.
There is also a squabble over the death penalty between MVFR and Justice For All, and a low grumbling that the movement is being co-opted by nonvictims. POMC's executive director is not a crime victim. Some advocates are in dispute about whether Justice For All president Dianne Clements fits the definition of a true victim of a crime. News reports said the death of her 13-year-old son, Zachary, was ruled accidental -- that during a game of hide-and-seek with toy weapons in 1991, a playmate shot him with what he thought was an unloaded shotgun. Clements said in a Houston Chronicle article that through her persistence with prosecutors, the playmate was charged with negligent homicide, convicted in juvenile court and put on one year's probation.
Clements went on to form ZAK, Zero Accidental Killings, a group that gained an ordinance making adult gun owners liable for the actions of kids who used their weapons. But her most effective influence would come under the flag of Houston's Justice For All.
Justice For All is generally considered to be the angriest victims' rights group on the block. It's a relative newcomer, but what it lacks in experience it more than makes up for in political stroke. That is by design. JFA was perhaps a new kind of victims' group, one that views legislative achievement as the end goal.
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