Bill would expand victim’s rights in juvenile court

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(Host) Legislation giving crime victims greater access to juvenile court proceedings is under consideration in the Vermont House. The bill attempts to balance the rights of victims with the tradition of keeping juvenile records confidential.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Historically, juvenile court proceedings have been off limits to the public – and to crime victims. But Senator Dick Sears (D-Bennington County) says victims should be able to go into court and confront juvenile offenders. Sears says it would empower the victim and it would help the juvenile.

(Sears) “I’ve worked with delinquent kids for over 30 years and I’ve got to tell you that I haven’t seen kids hurt by victims. I’ve seen kids hurt victims and then not make the changes that are necessary to stay out of trouble, partly because I think they never understood what the victim went through.”

(Zind) Sears’ bill, which has passed the Senate, gives victims greater access to juvenile proceedings. It would allow victims to learn the juvenile’s identity, to speak out in court and to find out certain conditions of their release.

Although the victim would have to keep the juvenile’s name secret, Robert Shiel of the state’s Juvenile Defenders Office saus he’s concerned about confidentiality. Shiel says that’s a cornerstone in the juvenile justice system:

(Shiel) “The whole the concept of juvenile court has been to not have the children who make bad decisions early in life, when they haven’t developed reasoning powers, to have this tail behind of mistakes they made in their youth.”

(Zind) Shiel says under current law, victims can submit written or recorded comments and courts have the discretion to give victims the identity of an offender, if it’s appropriate. He says there are other ways, outside of the courtroom, to give victims the opportunity to directly confront juvenile offenders.

(Shiel) “Our office has always a supporter of restorative justice concerns, those types of concerns that the victims are talking about are much better dealt with in that type of environment than court proceedings. And I don’t think it’s necessary to erode juvenile court protections in order to gain what they’re trying to gain.”

(Zind) Victims’ rights advocates say the legislation is a more restorative approach. They say it’s as beneficial for the juvenile as it is for the victim. Jennifer Poehlmann of the Vermont Center for Crime Victims Services says the legislation is long overdue:

(Poehlmann) “This bill would not put Vermont as a pioneer in this field. The vast majority of other states give victims much more right than they do under current law in Vermont. We are far behind from the victims’ perspective.”

(Zind) The Senate bill was amended last week in the House. The House version is more limited and more to the liking of the Juvenile Defenders Office. Sears and victims’ advocates hope a less restrictive bill eventually emerge this to be signed by the governor.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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