A Letter from Mel Hewitt, Partner and Crime Victim Attorney with Isenberg & Hewitt
Victim Notification Needs Action in Georgia
By: Melvin Hewitt – Managing Partner, Isenberg and Hewitt, PC (Atlanta, GA); Advisory Board Member, Marsy’s Law for Georgia; Co-chair, National Center for Victims of Crime (Washington, D.C.); Advisory Board Member, National Crime Victim Bar Association (Washington, D.C.); Former Chair, Crime Victim Advocacy Council (Atlanta, GA); Board Member, Atlanta Victim Assistance (Atlanta, GA)
As a crime victim, knowing when an accused perpetrator is arrested, released on bond, tried in court, and paroled from prison is critically important. In some cases, this can be a life-or-death issue because a victim needs to take proper precautions in order to stay safe. With the passage of the “Marsy’s Law” Constitutional Amendment in 2018, Georgia crime victims have a strong set of constitutional rights. However, for these rights to have value, a victim must have advanced knowledge or warning of what is going to happen next to exercise them in time.
Unfortunately, this is very hard for victims to do in Georgia. Why?
Georgia is one of a handful of states that does not have a unified, statewide victim notification system. Without casting blame on any government entity, the lack of a unified, statewide notification system is largely a function of our fragmented criminal justice system. That said, this presents real problems for victims because a victim can’t exercise his or her rights if they don’t even know when an opportunity to do so presents itself.
For starters, there is no unified database of an offender’s chronology when arrested, jailed, or released before trial in Georgia. This means that a victim is wholly dependent on what a particular county may have in place, and these systems vary across Georgia’s 159 counties. For example, due to this lack of coordination, a victim often has no way of knowing if an offender is released by a neighboring jurisdiction. In addition to the notification method itself often being outdated — relying on mail or faxes, rather than more modern methods such as phone calls, text messages, and emails — victims are oftentimes required to fill out multiple and detailed paperwork in order to get notifications.
This lack of data and notice also creates problems for law enforcement and prosecutors. Time and again, a judge considering bail conditions may not be aware of crimes committed in other jurisdictions when proceedings begin. And, we have all witnessed how difficult it is to get accurate data across governmental lines.
A recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that “there is no coordination among the six-county AVN (Automated Victims Notification) systems (local-level system) or between the local-level and state-level systems. There is no central administrative body that provides oversight or coordination of AVN services across the state; therefore, the two systems operate largely independent of one another.”
This problem can be solved. The amount of money needed is fairly modest. Our greater challenge is having the will to enforce cooperation across one of the nation’s most fragmented criminal justice systems.
The best place to begin is pooling data from jails across Georgia so that victim notification and information sharing between prosecutors, courts and law enforcement officers can be enabled. If we can get this done, it will build a base to develop a much more robust system that can include court action, prison detention, and pardon and parole action. It is imperative that any system be easy for victims in a traumatic situation to sign up for and enabled with modern communication tools to make staying in touch easy and seamless.
Our crime victims in Georgia deserve the absolute best efforts of our government. We can do this by working together, and we need to begin by understanding the challenge and having the political will to solve it.