This is National Crime Victims' Rights Week -- a time for the nation and our state to ask about the meaning of justice, both present and future, for those harmed by crime. Our theme this year, "Reshaping the Future, Honoring the Past," calls on us to not only reflect, but also to act.
Our first duty is to never forget the impact of crime. I am a crime victim. My husband, Michael, was murdered in a convenience store robbery in 1994. I was left to raise our four boys on my own. I'm happy to report that they have all become wonderful, productive adult men despite what they lost that day. But, even now, the anniversary of that day can bring us to our knees. We won't ever get over that senseless act of violence.
We should remember not only what crime has wrought but also the progress that has been made for crime victims over the years. Here in Maryland, victims have the right to be present in court, to apply for compensation, to be heard at parole and sentencing hearings, to be notified when offenders are released, and to receive information about their rights and available services.
Despite this progress, crime victims still face many challenges. Less than 15 percent of crime victims access needed victim services, such as crisis and mental health counseling, shelter, information, financial assistance and advocacy within the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Many victims do not know they have legal rights. Some victims are still being denied notification, compensation and access to courts. The impact of the recent recession -- both on donations to nonprofit victim services and on city, state and county budgets -- means that fewer victim assistance programs are available.
National Crime Victims' Rights Week calls our nation to take up these challenges, to reshape the future by facing our failures and building on past successes. Although this challenge may seem overwhelming, every jurisdiction and every individual can do something to improve our response to victims of crime. Among the things we can do:
Enforce current victims' rights laws. Victims' rights without enforcement are meaningless. Unfortunately, a bill that would have strengthened the enforcement of victims' rights failed in this year's General Assembly session; it should be revived next year.
Reach out to underserved victims. For a number of complex reasons, millions of crimes go unreported every year. Finding ways to reduce these numbers, through outreach by trusted community members or other means, should be an urgent local, state and national priority.
Support crime victims in your community. Although most of us do not hold public office, we all have the power to help victims of crime. Employers can help prevent workplace violence and actively protect stalking and domestic violence victims who work for them. They can give victims time off to attend court proceedings and receive needed services. Teachers, youth workers, clergy members and health professionals can look for signs of abuse or sexual victimization in children and teenagers, and find ways to offer support. Parents and teachers can demand strong anti-bullying laws and policies, ensuring that young victims are supported and bullies receive the intervention they need. Also, we can all volunteer at victim service agencies and support them financially.
"Reshaping the Future, Honoring the Past" reflects the power of crime victims and their allies to change the course of history. By recalling past struggles and triumphs during National Crime Victims' Rights Week, we can face the future with hope. May we honor all victims by seeking the fullest possible justice for those harmed by crime.
To learn more, contact the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, MCVRC (www.mdcrimevictims.org) and/or the Governor's Office on Crime Control and Prevention victims' division (http://tinyurl.com/4olgbze). MCVRC has a wealth of information and a calendar page. The governor's site lists a calendar of events for National Crime Victims' Rights week.