Blame the Victims

Laura Goodman-Brown, Minnesota's crime-victims ombudsman, is about to become a victim herself. And she says it's a crime.

When it opened in 1986, the Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman was one of the first of its kind in the nation. Since then it has served as a resource and model for other states and countries. Now Goodman-Brown believes the office itself has become a victim--the target of retaliation on the part of Rich Stanek, who, in his non-legislative career, works as an inspector with the Minneapolis Police Department.

"Stanek has been trying to shut us down for three years," Goodman-Brown says flatly. The budget deficit, she believes, was simply a convenient excuse to get rid of her office without having to go through the process of public hearings or any significant discussion of the work the ombudsman's office has done in its 16 years of existence.

The morning after Stanek announced the proposed budget cuts, Goodman-Brown was allowed to defend her office before the committee. But there was little room for debate, even among committee members. "There was not a lot of discussion," recalls Rep. Wes Skoglund, a Minneapolis DFLer who sits on the Judiciary Finance Committee. "We had become resigned to the fact that the chair was going to kill that office."

Moreover, because the budget bill was crafted in such a hurry, Skoglund says, it's possible that many legislators didn't even realize what they were cutting before it was too late: "To say every legislator knew that it was being cut simply isn't realistic," he concludes.

Stanek contends that the move was necessary during a year when he had to cut $40 million from the judiciary budgets he oversees. "That office's duties were transferred," he emphasizes. "Not eliminated or abolished, but transferred to the Department of Public Safety. I don't think the concept is bad. But some of it falls under duplicative services. We can do it better with less staff."

Stanek scoffs at the idea that eliminating the ombudsman's office had anything to do with its prior criticism of the Minneapolis Police Department: "The legislature made this decision. It wasn't Rich Stanek's decision. We have teachers chairing the education committee, farmers chairing the agriculture committee. This is a citizen legislature. There's no conflict in this case, except by virtue of my being a member of this 1,300-person organization, the Minneapolis Police Department."

Other legislators familiar with capitol politics aren't so sure. "This office is a political victim," Skoglund asserts. "This has a chilling effect on anybody who does their job properly. If you do your job properly and offend powerful legislators, you just might find yourself out of a job."

What's most strange, adds Skoglund, is that when the ombudsman's office investigates complaints, it usually finds that the police did their job correctly. "There are reasons why the police can't do more. But now there's basically nobody you can go to if police don't do anything," he says.

"Crime victims will be totally ignored," Skoglund concludes. "That's the message."

 

The American system of criminal justice was designed to protect the security of the populace and maintain social order. As a result, criminal cases are not carried out between the victim and the offender, but between the state and the offender. That's why the Bill of Rights protects the rights of those who are accused of crimes: to ensure that they aren't mistreated by the powerful government that prosecutes them. The U.S. Constitution does not require that victims be kept abreast of a criminal case. They don't have to be told if there's an arrest, or whether a trial date has been set or delayed. Bluntly put, the system tends to leave out the victim.

The consequences of that fact gave rise to the Victims' Rights Movement, which over the past three decades has striven to achieve greater protection for crime victims and a stronger voice within the justice system. In 1984 a governor-appointed task force held public hearings across Minnesota to learn what citizens felt were the needs of crime victims. The following year the legislature created the Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman, which opened for business in May 1986. Additionally, throughout the 1980s and '90s the legislature passed new laws that gave crime victims various rights--from the right to receive notification of events in the legal process to the right to describe the harm an offender caused, in the form of a "victim impact statement" presented during sentencing.

"For perpetrators the rights and services are far greater than for crime victims," Goodman-Brown says. "I would never advocate for a law or policy that would violate the rights of a defendant. But that doesn't mean we have to violate the rights of victims."

Goodman-Brown is well versed in the criminal justice system. After earning degrees in law enforcement and organizational communication at Normandale Community College and Metropolitan State University, she spent 12 years working as a police officer with the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department and the Minneapolis Police Department; during her 9 years with the latter agency, she worked in assignments ranging from beat patrol to vice to narcotics, ultimately rising to the rank of sergeant. In 1992 then-Gov. Arne Carlson appointed her to be the state's crime-victims ombudsman.

Goodman-Brown credits the appointment to her history of careful investigations. "I worked my cases well," she says. "I've always had a keen sense of justice and fairness."

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