The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 25, 2013

County witness units assure victim rights

Daily Item

---- — Even today, Candace Armstrong remembers what the police told her years ago, at a time when her husband did a lot of traveling in his military career, and their home had been burglarized in Texas.

It looked as if her family had come home mid-burglary and that the thieves had been scared off by the sound of the garage door. They skedaddled so fast that they left their tools out on the floor.

"They will be back," the police had warned. Candace Armstrong remembers how the family invested in an alarm system and how the prospect of being a crime victim still was almost completely unnerving.

Today, Armstrong leads a $96,000 a year office attached to Northumberland County's District Attorney to make sure victim witnesses navigate the criminal courts with the least amount of distress, so that their voices are included, the impact on their lives is factored into the proceedings and, in some cases, they receive compensation for their losses.

Armstrong, the Victim Witness coordinator for the county, recalled an unusually charitable elderly resident who thought he was donating some of his much-needed old-age benefits to needy Philadelphians, only to learn he had been scammed by con artists in Mexico. "We were able to help him get reimbursed for his benefit check," she said.

Money for the office's operation comes from a variety of government grants. Money to pay direct costs to victims who have no other resources comes from court-ordered restitution from convicted criminals.

Armstrong estimates she accompanies 120-140 victim witnesses to court every year and helps 850-950 a year with information and guidance. The cases involving direct compensation for medical prescriptions, funerals, counseling or specialized crime-scene cleanup number 20-30 a year.

If victim witnesses cannot bring themselves to face their tormentors in court, Armstrong's office makes sure a "victim impact statement" gets entered into the record.

Northumberland County's victim-witness assistance program dates back to 1986 when Pennsylvania allocated $8,900 to Northumberland County and then District Attorney, now president judge, Robert Sacavage said, "We know victims are uncomfortable when things are brought to court and we are here to smooth the way."

True then. True now.

It is almost a cliché that courts bend over backwards to uphold the rights of the accused, and they should. Prosecutors and coordinators like Candace Armstrong in every county throughout the state, through the Victim Witness program, also protect the rights of victims.