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Dealing with system can be frustrating for victims

April 24, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

For a crime victim, dealing with the sometimes disappointing outcome of a court case can be frustrating, but understanding the system and options available through it can help ease the blow when a sentence is pronounced.

"Most people aren't satisfied, but they don't work in the court system," said Jill Ritter, Washington County State's Attorney's Office Victim Witness Unit director.

It's Ritter's job and those in her unit to meet with victims and explain to them their options and the possible outcomes of their cases.

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"We try to meet with them early on and stay with them through the court process," she said.

When seeking a sentence for a convicted offender, prosecutors must decide whether they will pursue jail or prison time or, in cases where restitution is owed to the victim, whether they will pursue another arrangement that would allow the offender to work and pay off his or her debt, Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Kessell said.

"Any time it involves a monetary loss, there is tension," Kessell said. "If you incarcerate, you take away means to pay restitution ... Sometimes it requires splitting the loaf."

When it comes to compensating victims for their injuries or emotional damages, options aren't made available through the criminal justice system, but victims can pursue civil suits to reap those losses, he said.

Kessell said one of the inherent misunderstandings about the criminal justice system centers on the relationship between prosecutors and victims.

"We don't represent a victim in a crime the way a lawyer in a divorce case represents a spouse," he said.

Kessell said prosecutors have an obligation to factor in the interests of the victim, but ultimately have to represent the interests of the state when they go to court.

"Sometimes, we create a compound in that relationship when we become too personally involved in a particular case," he said. "It's a natural thing, but as prosecutors, we have to maintain a certain distance to remain objective."

With the volume of cases passing through Washington County courts - placing the county sixth highest in the state for its caseloads - the opportunity to get too involved in any particular case is decreased, he said.

There are between 425 and 475 new criminal filings a month, Kessell said. There are about 1,200 active files open at the District Court level, he said.

"It is the most important case for (the victim) and as prosecutors, we have to be mindful that despite the number of cases," a majority of them involve victims, Kessell said.

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