Senate bill would set up victims' rights office

Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) --The state Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would set up a state office of victims' rights.

Senate President Rick Halford said he sponsored the bill because victims may not be able to take advantage of rights provided them by a 1994 state constitutional amendment.

''The constitutional amendment that was overwhelmingly passed by the voters is not self-enforcing,'' said Halford, R-Chugiak. The state provides lawyers for those accused of crimes. Victims also need help understanding their rights and navigating the legal system, he said.

The bill is similar to one Gov. Tony Knowles vetoed last year, saying it created a bureaucracy instead of putting money into direct aid for crime victims. Knowles' spokesman Bob King said he didn't know whether the governor would veto this bill.

The 1994 constitutional amendment gave crime victims a number of rights, including the right to testify at sentencing, the right to attend court proceedings involving their case and the right to be told when the perpetrator is released.

The office of victims' rights would be charged with keeping victims informed of their rights and helping guide them through the legal process. Staff could also testify on a victim's behalf in court.

The bill also would prevent a defense attorney from referring to a victim's decision not to testify at a sentencing hearing. Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage, said that language was included because some attorneys have tried to use a victim's absence at sentencing to minimize the impact of a crime.

''It's a very brave thing on the part of a victim to come to court and not everybody has the willingness to do that,'' Donley said. ''This is an important step to keep victims' rights from actually being used against them.''

If victims complained of being denied their rights, the office would investigate the complaints and might recommend changes in the system.

Senate Bill 105 calls for two lawyers, a paralegal and three clerical workers to staff the new victims' rights office, which would be under the legislative branch. The bill also increases the amount of money crime victims can receive from the Violent Crimes Compensation Board.

Halford said a change in Permanent Fund dividend forfeitures would more than pay the cost of the bill. The measure calls for expanding the list of prisoners from whom dividends can be seized.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously. It now goes to the House.



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