Stronger sentences and greater support for victims are two heralded achievements from criminal justice stakeholders over the past 20 years.
“It is vital to recognize the importance of victims, which for hundreds of years until the last few decades were given little regard other than as witnesses in the process,” Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said.
Hall County officials honored victims last week during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. For Darragh, a major change in the criminal justice system came around 1995, where serious felonies like aggravated child molestation led to mandatory minimum sentences.
“Some of those minimums have increased since and appropriately so that prosecutors could ensure that the most heinous of criminals be held fully accountable,” Darragh said.
A conviction in Georgia for aggravated child molestation is now “punished by imprisonment for life or by a split sentence that is a term of imprisonment for not less than 25 years and not exceeding life imprisonment,” according to Georgia code.
Sentencing options for murder convictions changed in 2009, when prosecutors could ask for a life sentence without parole without seeking the death penalty. A person convicted of murder must serve 30 years before the possibility of parole.
As a result of this, Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris has seen the percentage of cases tried in court drop into the single digits.
He and fellow public defenders must “explain the reality to their client” when considering going to trial.
“Ultimately the client has to see what could very well happen to them and a lot of times they make a choice,” Morris said.
At the Little House on Washington Street, two agencies work to protect children and help them in the criminal justice system: the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children and the Court-Appointed Special Advocates.
CASA Executive Director Connie Stephens said the system has been in a “crisis mode” with the number of children seen by the center increasing every year. CASAs monitor and advocate for the best interest of the child in court proceedings, the number of which has increased following the recently rewritten juvenile code.
Of recent accomplishments by state and federal agencies, Edmondson-Telford Center for Children Executive Director Heather Hayes lauded the growth of task forces centered around human trafficking.
“I think we’ve made progress over the last 10-15 years in our services to victims like victim’s compensation for their needs to start their recovery and healing process, but now what I think we’re starting to see is movement toward identifying potential victims and intervening,” Hayes said.
The Georgia General Assembly extended the statute of limitations through House Bill 17 for childhood sexual abuse victims, a way Hayes said allows “letting what happened to you be known.”
For her work in the medical field, Hayes said she believes many are unaware of the Crime Victims Fund, which helps pay for exams and medications.
Additionally reimbursing victims for lost wages and counseling, the fund provides victims with the “comfort, compassion and reassurance that their body is OK or is being treated,” Hayes said.
“Victims often before that maybe didn’t seek medical care or may have had to pay for it out of pocket,” she said.
To see what progress can be made, Darragh said prosecutors meet regularly with legislators to address issues in prosecution.
For Hayes, the main issue to tackle is cybercrimes and bullying, an area of the law still lagging behind.
One of the biggest issues for Hayes is the way to prove that the offender is on the other end of the device committing the crime.
“It’s harder and harder to track, and it’s even harder to prosecute and hold offenders accountable,” she said.