PPI 5.1 | Data Story: Victim Support Outreach for Felony Person Crimes

Publication date: 10/26/2022

Key Points

  • MCDA assigns victim advocates to many types of cases, but most frequently to victims of felony person crimes and instances of domestic violence.
  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, MCDA assigned victim advocates to roughly two-thirds of felony person crime cases. This percentage has decreased in 2020 and 2021 to a low of 35% near the end of 2020.
  • As pandemic restrictions are lifted, MCDA will continue to ensure victims are provided the necessary support they need.

Introduction

Victim advocates play a critical role in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office (MCDA). They have many responsibilities: among other tasks, victim advocates notify crime victims of their rights, discuss the specifics of upcoming court dates, assess needs, and make appropriate referrals to external organizations. Victim advocates do this work with a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach. Bilingual victim advocates and interpreters assist victims with language access needs, including American Sign Language signers or people with limited English proficiency. 

MCDA values trauma informed practices and using language those impacted by crime prefer or identify with. This can include referring to individuals who have experienced violent crime as “survivors.” However, there are many points in the criminal justice process where the courts and our office must use the term “victim” because of specific rights and protections given to designated victims of crime. To learn more about crime victims’ rights click here.

When MCDA prosecutes a defendant, the office represents the interests and safety of the public, including crime victims. Because the criminal justice system is complicated and not always accommodating to victims, MCDA tries to assign advocates to as many criminal cases as possible to help victims navigate the process. Ideally all cases would be assigned an advocate, but the volume of cases and the capacity of staff limits the office’s ability to do so. Because of these limitations, “person crimes”—offenses that involve a threat, physical harm toward a victim, or attempted physical harm—are prioritized by the Victim Assistance Program (VAP). Some types of cases, like those handled by the Domestic Violence Unit, will almost always be assigned an advocate due to the relationship between the offender and the victim.  MCDA prioritizes informing and supporting victims of crime regardless of the outcome of a criminal case. Therefore, crime victim resources are available whether or not charges have been issued or an advocate has been assigned. One can access these resources by visiting the MCDA website or contacting the VAP.

 

Referred person felony cases with victim contact

What does the data tell us?

The above graph shows the percentage of cases with at least one person crime felony charge where a victim was assigned an advocate. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, cases had a higher rate of victims being assigned an advocate, peaking at 62% in late 2018. The assignment of victim advocates began declining in 2019, and this trend was further exacerbated after the start of the pandemic. In late 2020, advocate assignment reached its lowest point, with only 35% of cases receiving an advocate assignment, followed by a minor upward trend. Many factors contributed to the decline, but the main reason advocate assignment decreased relates to the pandemic’s severe impact on criminal justice processes. Another explanation could be the decrease in the number of person felonies prosecuted during this timeframe, resulting in fewer new assignments. 

Note that while the percentage of new cases assigned to an advocate have decreased during the pandemic, advocate caseloads have increased. This is likely due to two factors. First, MCDA prioritized the prosecution of violent crimes when the pandemic imposed a strain on the justice system—issuing a violent crime case requires a formal assignment to an advocate. Second, the pandemic’s impact on court hearings and a lack of trials stalled case dispositions. This resulted in more new crime victims added than were withdrawn from caseloads, which led to an increase in advocates’ individual caseloads. Ultimately, the rate of advocate assignment is determined by both the capacity of the office and the overarching trends within the justice system. 

Discussion

Victim advocates have a significant impact on the justice system’s ability to pursue prosecution. They coordinate with crime victims, whose involvement with the process—from pre-trial interviews, to testifying, to making impact statements—is critical to MCDA’s ability to present strong and legally sufficient cases. The system must be efficient, but it must also be sensitive to the very human element crime victims bring to these cases. Victim advocates help navigate this challenge.

Many factors that influence whether a case will be designated for advocate assignment: the type of offense, the severity of the charges, and the specific needs of the victim among others. That being said, MCDA prioritizes its ability to provide support, resources and process clarification to crime victims. But pandemic restrictions heavily impacted advocacy, and resulted in advocates quickly reaching capacity.  For instance, the court was not able to safely hold the same number of trials. So cases that rely heavily on victim testimony remained unresolved, and grew advocates’ caseloads. In these situations, ongoing advocacy and communication can be especially important, as victims experience the burden of multiple hearings and postponements. 

MCDA hopes to see an increase in the percentage of cases in which an advocate is assigned because prosecution works better when advocates are present to help crime victims navigate the justice system. They often serve as a buffer between crime victims and the justice system. Advocates answer questions and alleviate the concerns of crime victims as they navigate the distinctly complicated and often slow-moving process that is prosecution within our current justice system, pre and post COVID-19. They can also assess the needs of a victim and make appropriate referrals to partner agencies or community-based organizations. To learn more about these resources and partnerships, visit the VAP website.