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Victim programs at the Montana Department of Corrections
By Sally Hilander, Victim programs manager, Montana Department of Corrections
Published: 05/10/2010

Police line “Where is the offender now?”

This is probably the most important question we in corrections can answer for crime victims as they strive to reclaim their lives. Victims tell us that knowing an offender’s current location alleviates the anxiety, fear, and powerlessness.

Information and notification, therefore, form the foundation of the Montana Department of Corrections (MDOC) victim services program, which also includes opportunities for victims to speak directly with offenders about the impacts of crime.

MDOC supervises about 13,000 adult offenders and has one staff member dedicated solely to victim services.

Victim information and notification

Victim notification is no small task in a state where 80 percent of convicted felons are supervised in community-based corrections programs, rather than in prison. For offenders committed to MDOC, corrections experts at two assessment and sanction centers endeavor to find community placements based on individual offender risks and needs. Possible placements include boot camp, prerelease centers (halfway houses), drug and alcohol treatment programs, a strict level of probation supervision with electronic monitoring, or, oftentimes, a combination of these options. If community placement is deemed inappropriate, a DOC “commit” goes to prison.

For victims with offenders in prison, Montana subscribes to VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday), a service of the Appriss Inc. in Louisville, Ky. Victims may register with VINE to receive phone or e-mail notification about parole hearings, transfers to other prisons, escapes, pending releases and offender deaths.

Offenders in community corrections tend to move quickly (sometimes within weeks or months) from one program or facility to another. MDOC does not have VINE service for community corrections, but we urge victims to register with the department and the state Board of Pardons and Parole. Facility staff members are responsible for notifying registered victims when an offender moves to another location or custody level. MDOC is looking for ways to increase victim registrations and improve the notification process for victims of the offender population in those community programs.

Victim impact panels (VIPs)

NOTE: In the February 22, 2010 issue of Corrections.com, we discussed our victim impact panel (VIP) program. See Victim Impact Panels Have Effect on Offenders.

VIPs provide a forum for victims to share how both property and violent crimes have affected them, their families, friends, and communities. VIPs also hold offenders accountable and promote healing for all parties affected. Hundreds of Montana offenders have told VIP speakers that their stories of victimization made a difference. Here are three excerpts from offender letters:
“You said you lock your car doors, house doors, and windows, you sit with your back to the wall in restaurants. I will never know the constant fear that you live with from day to day, but I caught a glimpse of it when you spoke directly to me, and I felt pain for you and my countless victims. I will use these feelings of pain and guilt to motivate me never to victimize again.

We are taught empathy, to see and feel the world through another person’s eyes, but until I seen the expressions on your face, the hurt and heartache, it’s not real. You opened my eyes not only to how badly my victim was and is hurting, but also my Mom and Dad, how much hurt they are going through. I thank you for making me understand these things.

I will use the tools I have learned from you to straighten out my life. I am going to become a responsible father again. The pain on your face was too much, combined with the pain I saw on my victims’ faces in the courtroom has convinced me that there is nothing in this world that is worth seeing faces like that again. ”



VIP speakers also assist MDOC staff during annual probation and parole officer basic training at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, and a VIP was the most popular feature of a 2009 Montana Correctional Association convention victim services training agenda.

Victim-offender dialogue

Support for victims sometimes means arranging face-to-face meetings with their offenders so they can ask questions about the crime that no one else can answer. Family members of homicide victims request victim-offender dialogue (VOD) more often than any other victim group, but MDOC also has facilitated dialogues with victims of aggravated assault, negligent (drunken driving) homicide, and incest. VOD is voluntary for victims and offenders.

The victim program manager and trained volunteer facilitators conduct months of preparation separately with the victim and offender prior to a dialogue. MDOC has found that victim-offender dialogue lives up to its national reputation as an “amazing process.” Prior to the first VOD, for example, the man who initiated the process anticipated a brief confrontation with his nephew’s murderer, but he agreed to hear what the offender had to say. The two parties were still talking four hours later.

Offender accountability letters

MDOC’s newest victim program provides an opportunity for offenders to write letters to their victims if they seem to be genuinely accountable and remorseful, and sincerely want to make amends. Offenders are never allowed to mail letters directly to their victims. Instead, case managers and victim services staff help offenders identify their true motives for reaching out to their victims, especially if they are seeking forgiveness. Letter-writing guidelines help offenders avoid statements that blame others or minimize the harm. The victim programs manager receives the finished accountability letter and notifies the victim(s). Victims decide whether to receive the letters and respond to the offenders.

Offenders participating in victim-offender dialogue or the accountability letter program receive no tangible benefits, such as early parole consideration.

Restitution

Victims of crime receive about $2.5 million in court-ordered restitution each year through the Collections Unit at MDOC. The 2003 Montana biennial Legislature centralized collections from the state’s 56 counties, which had various methods of collecting and disbursing the money to victims. Collections have tripled under MDOC. Offenders fund the Collections Unit with a 10 percent fee added to the restitution amount.

For more information about MDOC victim programs, including policies for victim-offender dialogue and offender accountability letters, call Sally Hilander at (406) 444-7461, or email shilander@mt.gov.

Other articles by Sally Hilander


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