Crime watchers

The Justice Department last week unveiled plans for a computer system that will enable victims of violent federal crimes and their families to track the whereabouts of their attackers and the status of their cases in the justice system.

The Victim Notification System (VNS) is intended to head off the potentially traumatic situation in which a victim of rape, assault or another violent crime crosses paths with the convicted attacker, not even having known the assailant was out of prison.

Many states have developed systems to notify crime victims when an offender's parole hearing has been scheduled or when the offender will be released on work furlough. But the federal government, with a patchwork of paper records and databases used by the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons and other Justice agencies, has no central way to notify crime victims of the status of federal prisoners. Nor does the federal government have a way to notify victims of an alleged offender's status during the trial process.

Some states have integrated their systems for tracking offenders and their victims. In Arkansas, officials recently went statewide with a system called the Victim Identification and Notification Everyday program. Paula Stitz, a coordinator for the program, said results can be horrific when victims of violent crimes do not know the status of their attackers. In one case, a woman met her assailant in the grocery store in a small town "and was extremely traumatized," said Stitz, a former chief of police in Eureka Springs, Ark.

The Justice project stems from recent federal laws that have emphasized the rights of victims, including the 1982 Victim and Witness Protection Act, the 1990 Crime Control Act and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, said Tom Kilmartin, director of the Federal Crime Victims Division at Justice.

Having no common case management system, federal agencies handle victim notification inefficiently, taking "an inordinate amount of time" to put data into existing computer systems and to notify victims by mail or phone, Kilmartin said.

Also, the government has no consistent way for sharing information when one Justice agency stops tracking an offender and another agency should begin.

U.S. Attorneys offices, the Bureau of Prisons and the FBI will participate initially in the VNS project, according to Kilmartin, who said he hopes the system will expand to include other Justice agencies and other federal crime-fighters.

One industry source estimated that Justice may spend as much as $50 million to develop VNS, with perhaps a cost of $10 million per year to operate and maintain the system, including costs for an automated telephone center that would handle calls from victims. Justice released the plan to industry vendors last week for comment, with hopes of awarding a contract in mid-2000 to build the system.

Observers say VNS likely will give victims access to information about an offender by calling an automated telephone center and using a telephone keypad to enter an offender's name or an identification number. Access via the World Wide Web may be another option for making the information available. The system would automatically send a letter or make a phone call to a victim when an offender's status changes.

Charles Daniels, manager of Justice programs for Science Applications International Corp., said federal officials want a single system to handle all the needs of crime victim notification.

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