Our friend and supporter, Reuben Neff, Wapello County Attorney, penned this opinion piece for National Crime Victims' Rights Week. Thanks to Attorney Neff for his unwavering support.
In states across the country, April 19 – 25 has been designated as National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. This is a time to draw attention to those who have been the victim of a crime, help support them in their recovery process and shine a light on legislative policies that can help strengthen a victims’ standing.
As a prosecutor who has lived in another state, it quickly became evident to me when I moved to Iowa how poorly the criminal justice system here treats victims of crime. In fact, I ran for county attorney because I saw victims who were constantly left out of the process - not being told what was happening in their cases, finding out after the case was done that the defendant received a plea agreement.
The moment a person is victimized by a defendant, they have their life instantly upended. And even though a person may be beaten, sexually abused, or violated somehow, it doesn’t just end there. Our court system is slow moving - this process lasts months, sometimes years and as it currently stands, the system is not in any way designed to take into account a victims’ feelings whatsoever. Iowa crime victims are dragged from court date to court date, a lot of times without knowing when they are happening or what will take place. Our court system is guilty of causing trauma that emotionally abuses these victims who were already suffering.
While there are currently statutes on the books for victims, all these do is pay lip service. Judges can and are ignoring these statutes that are put in place to protect victims.
We must do better for Iowa crime victims. Putting victims’ rights in our state constitution will ensure Iowans who become victims of crime are on a level playing field. Judges cannot ignore a constitutional right.
These rights are incredibly reasonable and honestly very minimal requests - the right to be notified of court proceedings, the right to be heard at trial, the right to reasonable protection from the accused, the right to restitution. To the system these aren’t huge things but to the victim they are everything.
In no way will this change the defendant's right to an attorney, to due process, to have their rights in court, or confront their witnesses. It simply forces the courts to just pay attention to victims and give them their say. After all, it’s their life that’s being discussed too, not just the defendant’s.
Whether lawmakers want to admit it or not, victims are being traumatized by the system every day. When the court fails to notify them, when we fail to take their perspective into account, we are failing Iowans. I hope this National Crime Victims’ Rights Week those lawmakers will realize that kicking this can down the road or not providing for a strong, detailed victims’ rights amendment is also failing Iowa victims. There is no excuse to not support giving Iowans more rights, especially to of all people, crime victims.
I have been the victim of a crime where I was stalked and assaulted. The person who did this to me was relentless at pursuing me. Every time he was arrested and bailed out, it was his goal was to be at my home or in my presence. This was a scare tactic - constantly intimidating me and trying to show me that no matter what I did or how many times I called the authorities, I would not be safe. It was not uncommon to “run into” him in public, even when he was not legally supposed to be in the county. There were many times I thought I was safe but because of a broken criminal justice system, in reality I was in grave danger.
Iowa’s criminal justice system should protect innocent victims of crime. Instead, there were times when I was not informed or able to make my voice heard during the process. I feared for my life. I was first victimized by the person who hurt me and then repeatedly revictimized by a system I thought would keep me safe.
The justice system in Iowa is broken, but the Iowa Legislature can fix it by passing a crime victims’ rights amendment to our state constitution. This would give victims like me the undeniable right to speak at trial, it would give victims the chance to be a part of the process and be notified of hearings or the status of their offender.
In my case, and many others, this isn’t just a political talking point that legislators can turn away from when they’re at the capitol. Failure to pass a crime victims’ rights amendment is literally a matter of life and death.
One of our strong survivor victims, Shal continues to bravely share her story with anyone will listen. This NCVRW she penned an opinion piece to help empower other victims and be their voice for change. Thanks for never backing down, Shal.
The day that I left my husband he became very angry. In front of my children, he punched me, full-force in the head. One would think the situation and all that followed - hospital visits, traumatic brain injury, living in a shelter - was the most terrifying part of my situation. The way our criminal justice system failed me and let me fall through the cracks was nearly as traumatizing as the assault itself.
Through the entire criminal justice process, I was never notified of any of the court dates concerning my case. Not once was I told that I could be at the hearings. I was never informed on what was happening with the case. Why would it be incumbent upon me, as the victim, to somehow find out the details that affect my life, my well-being, my safety?
Every day I was involved in the criminal justice process I felt like I did not matter, that I had no value. The system was designed to protect and value the person who brutally beat me and left me with a brain injury. My story is not unique. This is happening to crime victims all across Iowa. Our state can do better than this.
As it stands now, our system is out of balance. Crime victims in Iowa deserve to have constitutionally protected rights. Rights that would ensure they are informed of any and all hearings, that they are allowed to make their voice heard, that they are guaranteed reasonable protection from the person who hurt them.
If legislators in Iowa go through one more session and fail to pass a crime victims’ rights amendment, they are failing all Iowans - the ones like me who have suffered this terrible process and those who will unknowingly become victims someday in the future.
We must give victims a voice in our state constitution.
Our Tales From the Road today reminds us that we're all working toward the same goal - protected rights for crime victims. It's great hitting the road and meeting with others who share our goals and finding new ways to work together.
We stumbled upon a lot of fun in small towns across Iowa during our 99 county tour which we call the #RoadtoRights. Sarah breaks down a good one in our latest Tales From the Road.
Today's Tales From the Road post is a look back at an event we attended in Cedar Rapids where we were pleasantly surprised to find Iowans are more than willing to be the voice of others when it comes to doing what is right.
We're back with another edition of our Tales From the Road, with a throwback to our team's adventures at the this past summer.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Marsy’s Law for Iowa Urges Victim Notification Prior to Inmate Release
DES MOINES, Iowa (March 26, 2020) — As Iowa’s law enforcement community and prosecutors wrestle with decisions to release convicted criminals in order to deter the spread of COVID-19 in Iowa, Marsy’s Law for Iowa is offering a reminder to notify crime victims of an inmate’s release.
“We’re grateful for the lengths that law enforcement from across the state are going to in order to keep our communities safe during this pandemic,” said Eric Baker of Marsy’s Law for Iowa. “We also recognize that during these stressful times, it’s more important than ever for victims to be informed on the status of their offender. Their safety depends on it.”
As the Coronavirus continues to spread, states across the country are looking for ways to decrease the prison population. In fact, recent news accounts in Iowa have detailed jails and prisons considerations for releasing criminals.
Currently, Iowa crime victims are not provided enforceable rights in the state’s constitution. Marsy’s Law for Iowa, a grassroots organization that has been advocating for a crime victims’ rights amendment, points to the fact COVID-19 in Iowa has illustrated why statutory rights are no longer good enough for crime victims.
“If you have been the victim of a non-violent crime, you should reach out to your county attorney if you do not want your offender released,” said Reuben Neff, Wapello County attorney and Marsy’s Law for Iowa supporter. “It’s incredibly frustrating that Iowa crime victims don’t currently have constitutional protections, but this is an action you can take right now to make sure your voice is heard.”
For County Attorney contact information visit the Iowa County Attorneys Association’s website.
We're launching a new series - Tales from the Road - to give you insights into what our team is doing when they're out traveling the state of Iowa. We hear from locally elected officials, victim survivors, law enforcement and everyday Iowans who are concerned with the lack of constitutional rights for Iowa crime victims. We'll keep going the distance for crime victims' rights. We're glad to have you along for the ride.