Recognizing the rights of victims

BROOKVILLE — Crime victims continue to strive for their rights, a struggle highlighted during National Victims' Rights Week.

This year's theme, "Reshaping the Future and Honoring the Past," honors and respects crime victims who have found strength to rebuild their lives one step at a time.

Michelle Fusco, Jefferson County Victim Services coordinator for adult offenders, said one of the programs with which she works is the Victim's Compensation Assistance Program (VCAP) through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency, which is funded by fees imposed on offenders and does not cost taxpayers any money.

Through the program, a victim won't pay for lost, damaged or stolen property, and the program will pay for medical, counseling and funeral benefits; relocation in certain cases; damage due to arson; and damage as the result of domestic violence, Fusco said.

Also, the fund will pay for one month of benefits for an elderly victim who is on Social Security and has suffered a loss of support due to a scam, or if someone illegally removes money from an account.

Crime affects all victims differently, Fusco said: Some people are fine and just move on, while others have a more difficult time doing so.

"I always say that I don't know how you feel, because I'm not in your shoes," she said.

A victim of sexual assault, however, will live with that terrible experience for the rest of his or her life — and not even money in the form of restitution can make that victim feel whole again, Fusco said.

"Most victims want to see the offender suffer in the manner that they've suffered," she said. "Unfortunately, the justice system doesn't work that way. Even if the offender is placed in jail, that's not the same kind of suffering."

Fusco said many people don't understand why offenders are sentenced how they are. A judge must follow certain guidelines, or a grading of the crime committed, when sentencing an offender. One of the guidelines is the number of times a person has been in trouble within the justice system.

Fusco said that every victim — when his or her case comes up for trial or plea and sentencing court — has the opportunity to offer input on what he or she believes should happen to the offender.

"Every victim is contacted, and we will go above and beyond for the victim of a serious crime," she said. If a victim doesn't respond to phone calls or the paperwork via mail, Victim Services will send a police officer to the residence to discuss the situation.

The final decision regarding sentencing is still up to the judge and the district attorney, Fusco said.

Even if it's just explaining what's going to happen next in a case, Fusco said she feels as if she makes a difference in a victim's life, knowing that a victim won't have to sit in the courtroom alone.

If you are a crime victim, and the offender is an adult, you can call Fusco at 849-1663, or if you're a victim of juvenile crime, call Dan Leonard at 849-1663 at the Jefferson County District Attorney's office.