Image courtesy Berkshire District Attorney's Office

News Brief: Berkshire DA’s Office honors victims’ rights week

A team of 10 victim witness advocates at the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office work to inform and enforce victims’ rights across the county and are available in each criminal court.

Berkshire DA’s Office honors victims’ rights week

Pittsfield — The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office honors victim advocates, assistant district attorneys and all public safety professionals for their tireless work in ensuring victims have a meaningful role in the criminal justice system, are supported and are connected with the resources they need to heal.

This week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and the theme is “Seek Justice, Ensure Victims’ Rights, Inspire Hope.”

The Massachusetts Victim Bill of Rights (M.G.L.c258B) exists to ensure crime victims and witnesses are informed, present, and heard at important stages in the criminal matter involving them.

A team of 10 victim witness advocates at the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office work to inform and enforce victims’ rights across the county and are available in each criminal court. Advocates provide crucial services to victims, witnesses and families of crimes who have the right to be notified of significant developments in the case involving them and the right to information on how to access social services. Advocates help engage with community supports and support victims and families in the aftermath of crime.

VWAs also help to ensure other rights such as a victim’s right to be heard, to be present at all court hearings, to request to wait in a safe and secure waiting area separate from the defendant, to decline or to set boundaries to their participation with defense counsel interviews, to certain protections if threatened or intimidated for their participation in a trial or court proceeding, and the right to apply to the Massachusetts Victim of Violent Crime Compensation fund to obtain out of pocket expenses incurred as a direct result of a violent crime.

One of the most important rights a VWA can help uphold is the right of a victim or of family members of a homicide victim to make a victim impact statement, which describes in their own words the emotional, physical, psychological and financial impact after a crime.

Victims submit the impact statement to the court in writing, verbally or read into the record by an assistant district attorney. It lets the victim’s voice be heard at a critical stage in the process and provides the court with additional insight to the true impact of the crime. This statement also includes an opinion on sentencing.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the mission of the victim witness advocates assigned to the DA’s office remains unwavering. Advocates proactively reached out to more than 300 victims in local cases to ensure their safety and ease anxiety. They continue to be available to answer questions, connect to resources and explain how to navigate the criminal justice system.

The office launched a victim witness advocate information line at 1 (855) ASKVWAS so victims, witnesses and families seeking justice can continue to be provided with information directly from a VWA. Advocates will provide assistance with safety planning, referrals to confidential counseling, social services, help with obtaining restraining or harassment orders, and will answer questions about the criminal justice process and the possible outcomes to those who call or text.

These services are especially helpful to domestic and sexual violence victims so they can make informed decisions about their participation and know what to anticipate.

The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office is victim-centered and builds greater support and trust between crime victims, witnesses and the criminal justice system.

In the last year, the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office expanded its reach in providing victim services from increasing the availability of advocates to the community to bringing diversity to the advocate staff and to conducting community discussions where advocates discuss rights afforded to victims.

To know more about the full Massachusetts Victim Bill of Rights, call to speak to a victim witness advocate.