By a Biometrica staffer
In 1993, a woman from Kentucky, Mary Byron, was raped, assaulted, and stalked by her ex-boyfriend, who was then arrested for those crimes. Unfortunately, he was released from jail when someone posted his bail. A short while after, on her 21st birthday, he tracked Mary down and shot her at point-blank range, killing her. Mary had not even known that he had been released from jail and, thus, had no way of knowing that he might come after her.
A year after Mary’s murder, Jefferson County, Kentucky, launched VINE — the National Victim Notification Network — designed to do everything possible to reduce the risk of what happened to Mary being repeated ever again. Since that initial automated telephone notification system was established, the concept has been picked up and expanded all across the country.
The Victim Notification System (VNS) was established by the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act of 1990 and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004, and aims to help victims of federal crimes be treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and be empowered by knowledge as their case progresses through the criminal justice machine.
The VNS is a free and automated system that electronically and through writing informs the victim both about case developments and about the defendant(s) in the case. It is funded through fines and penalties paid by convicted offenders — and not tax revenue — and is administered by the DOJ Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), Crime Victims Fund, which was established by the Victims of Crime Act of 1984.
Various departments involved in the execution of this program include the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and the DOJ’s Criminal Division.
As it is a federal database, the VNS system only provides information if the defendant is in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. In that case, the victim is told where the inmate is located, when (if at all) they can expect the inmate to be released, parole proceedings, other incarceration notices, etc.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also run a victim notification program under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security. The cases they deal with involve a non-U.S. citizen who has entered the country illegally and had been apprehended and convicted of a crime in the U.S. After the person has served their sentence, ICE takes over the deportation process. It is at this point that a victim or witness involved in the case can request authorities to notify them about the offender’s release and/or deportation proceedings.
On the state level, VNS programs vary. Victims can speak to their state’s department of corrections, or check the VINElink website. VINE says it is the “nation’s leading victim notification network.” It is available in 48 states at the moment and covers 2,900 incarceration facilities. It provides real-time alerts throughout the year, is free, and is available in multiple languages. These programs depend on accurate and timely information sharing from state and county law enforcement agencies. As a result, these are not all-encompassing nor exhaustive.
All these systems are “opt-in,” meaning that the victim needs to be proactive in registering themselves with the relevant agency to ensure they receive timely alerts. Not every victim would want to receive regular updates about their case, but for many, it is important when they are making plans about their lives and safety.
As the case of Mary Byron illustrates, notifying a victim of the release of their offender can be extremely important, in terms of ensuring they can heal from their trauma by being aware of where their abuser/offender is. As one source puts it: “The type of information victims receive, as well as the opportunities they have to participate in the justice process, can play a key role in their mental and emotional reconstruction and help them put their lives back together in the wake of victimization.”
But it is also especially important as a preventative measure. Many victims and survivors rightly fear retribution or facing their attacker again. Knowing the whereabouts of their offender can lower the risk of being caught unaware if the offender decides to seek them out for any reason.
Some tips on what victims can do to best protect themselves:
- Research your state laws regarding victim notification
- Review your agency policies and advocate that your agency policies provide ample opportunities for victims to be given information about requesting notification
- Identify any websites that provide information on notification rights and services
- Check with the victim services agency in your area
Conversely, organizations dealing with victims and helping them heal should:
- Explain the criminal justice proceedings to the victim, if they have questions
- If it exists in your jurisdiction, invite them to “opt-in” for notification services. Don’t assume they are choosing to opt-out. Offer the resource.
- Coordinate with the victims’ services program within your corrections agency if one exists.
Victims can obtain automated status information by calling the VNS Call Center at 1-866-365-4968 (1-866-DOJ-4YOU)
They can also access the VNS site at www.notify.usdoj.gov
A Victim ID# and PIN# are required to access the VNS Call Center or VNS Internet site