Remarks of Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.
National Victims Rights Week Awards Ceremony
April 24, 2009
Thank you, Laurie and Joy. I'm honored to be here to pay tribute to this extraordinary group of people - the men and women who have devoted their lives to serving victims.
I'm glad to see that Ms. Lucas is back with us. Last night, she told us a moving story of her own experience with victimization. I know I speak for us all when I say that I was both touched and inspired.
I'd also like to acknowledge the contingent of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners from Washington, D.C. Laurie mentioned the role that OVC played in getting the SANE concept off the ground. The idea has spread, and I'm so pleased that we now have a group of SANEs right here in our Nation's Capital.
But this day is about our honorees - what they've done, and what their collective contributions mean to all victims. They are the ultimate helping hand, but that's only part of it, and maybe not even the most important part. These are the people who look at our system of justice and see unrealized potential. They see a system that quite rightly affords fundamental protections to the accused, but that also ought equally to afford victims of crime the dignity and respect they deserve. Presumption of innocence and due process for the defendant do not have to mean silence and suffering for the victim. We can and must have both, and these dedicated individuals have shown it - indeed, they show it every day.
I was fortunate to work with many people like them during my days as U.S. Attorney here in Washington, D.C. These were people who cared deeply about the process of justice. They respected the way the system was supposed to work. And they also knew that victims had to have a voice in that system. They helped me to make victim services central to our operations. We began to couple our Assistant U.S. Attorneys with our victim-witness staff, and we ultimately had victim-witness personnel staffing each of our prosecution sections. We had advocates in our sex offense division, we had them in our domestic violence unit, and we had them in our child abuse unit.
We also instituted a "kid's court" program, where our advocates and prosecutors would work with child victims to prepare them for the real thing. They could come and meet the judges and scope out the courtroom to get comfortable with the idea of being part of a trial.
These common sense steps demonstrate that it's possible to make victims central to the way we do business, even in a U.S. Attorney's Office as large and as busy as ours was. All it takes is a group of people committed to the idea that serving victims is part of serving justice.
There's a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that I love. He said, "Sometimes Aunt Jane on her knees can get more truth than the philosopher on his tiptoes." That's victim assistance in a nutshell. We ought to be spending less time worrying about why we can't do it, and more time praying for the wisdom to do it right.
We need those prayers now more than ever. Times are tough, and there's plenty of evidence that the downturn in the economy is taking a toll in terms of public safety. We hear from police chiefs across the country that crime is on the rise even as their departments face budget cuts. Making matters worse is that victim assistance programs, which already operate on a shoestring budget, are struggling to make ends meet, and victim compensation programs have been unable to meet demand. We have the conditions for a perfect storm, and if we don't act now, we're going to pay a high price. Victims will suffer, and community safety will suffer along with them.
I'm pleased that, thanks to the Recovery Act signed by President Obama, we've been able to provide relief. We are awarding today $95 million in victim assistance and victim compensation grants. These funds will be used to support direct services to vulnerable and underserved victims such as child abuse victims, victims with disabilities, victims in rural communities and Indian country, and victims in inner cities where crime rates remain high.
Funds will also be used to reimburse victims for out-of-pocket expenses related to their victimization. We'll be able to compensate hard-pressed inner-city hospitals and private counselors who provide therapy for rape and child abuse victims. Victim compensation programs expect to spend more than half of their funding for medical services. And we'll be able to cover lost wages for victims. We expect that 20 percent of victim compensation money will help with job-related losses, a critical element as more Americans are losing jobs and benefits.
Later this year, we will also award $5 million in Recovery Act discretionary funds to provide training and technical assistance and to support demonstration programs in areas ranging from child abuse to sexual assault to victim services in corrections. These funds will help improve the knowledge and skills base of victim service practitioners, and they will help move us toward a more evidence-based approach to victim assistance.
I would be remiss if I did not address another tragic symptom of the difficult times we currently face, and that is the increasingly common occurrence of mass violence in our communities. We hear about these crimes and we are simply unable to find the words to describe them. How do you address the unspeakable? One person can't do it. One organization can't do it. It takes an entire community - citizens, victim service providers, crisis counselors, and neighborhood groups working in concert with government agencies.
After a gunman walked into the American Civil Association in Binghamton, New York three weeks ago and shot 13 innocent people to death, we worked with crisis responders and charitable groups at the local level to respond to the victims - many of whom were immigrants working to become American citizens.
The Binghamton shootings demonstrate how victim advocates are being called on to do more than ever. No longer are their duties limited to the abused child struggling in isolation or the domestic violence victim alone against the world. Now, horrific acts of mass violence and terrorism are also part of their work. In acknowledgement of this fact, OVC will convene a symposium on terrorism and mass violence this June in Philadelphia. The goal will be to get local, state, and federal emergency response officials together with victim service providers and first responders to make sure resources are in place in the event that an event like Binghamton occurs again.
But whether a victim is the random target of a gunman or the lone victim of an assault, our role is - and should be - to help begin the process of returning to a normal life. Notice I didn't say, "to heal." As many victims will tell you, total healing may not be possible. Victimization can be a permanent open wound. But as Quincy Lucas reminded us last night, a good and useful life can be found in the aftermath of crime.
Victim service is tough work, and it's not getting any easier. You don't get paid a lot. You don't get a lot of applause - except today. There are no easy days, and you can't just leave it at the office at the end of your shift. That's why the men and women we recognize today - and so many of you in the audience - deserve our sincere thanks for what you do.
So allow me to conclude simply by saying thank you. On behalf of the Department of Justice, and on behalf of the President of the United States, I appreciate your dedication, I appreciate your hard work, and I am grateful for your service to crime victims, and to our country.