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Reconsider decision to drop victims' rights course

Published On: Apr 30 2013 03:23:37 PM CDT

This month we celebrate National Crime Victims’ Rights Week -- a week when we turn our awareness toward crime victims and the rights they deserve. This year’s theme is “New Challenges, New Solutions.” In the wake of the tragedy that befell the City of Boston, this theme is particularly significant.

I, like many others, watched in horror as the events surrounding the Boston Marathon unfolded. After the bombs exploded, the first responders performed heroically, getting help to victims almost instantaneously. There is little doubt that this rapid response saved many, many lives.

As the criminal investigation in Boston continues, and the prosecution commences, it is time for the “second” and “third responders” -- those who work in the criminal justice system -- to do their part. The criminal justice professionals will assist the victims in countless ways. They first must identify all of those affected. Then, they will provide notice of court hearings, assist with compensation claims, explain the complicated criminal justice process and ensure that the victims’ voices are heard.

We know that first responders, as part of their formal training, learn how to help victims. We find comfort in the fact that when they complete their education, they will know how to apply a tourniquet, perform CPR, and triage in the face of a mass tragedy. Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for the “second” and “third responders.” The truth is that many criminal justice professionals graduate from school without ever learning about victims and their rights.

For the past few years, a former colleague and I have taught a course at the University of Wisconsin Law School called “Victims in the Criminal Justice System.” We developed this course because we wanted to give law students the chance to develop a firm understanding of the issues surrounding crime victims, which are often complex and nuanced, and are best addressed initially in the classroom rather than in a real-world setting.

This class is one of a handful of courses in the country that focuses on victims. We trace the journey of victims from the point they are victimized through the entire legal process from investigation and charging to post-sentencing. We have speakers from all different disciplines, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, survivors, victim advocates, victim/witness specialists, law enforcement and the media. The feedback we receive from the students is overwhelmingly positive with many students commenting that ours was the best class they took while in law school.

Unfortunately, the University of Wisconsin Law School has chosen to drop this class for the 2013-14 academic year. We have been told that it will only be offered every other year due to budgetary constraints even though we would teach it for free. The decision to cut this class for next year will have a detrimental impact on the course because it will stymie the momentum in enrollment we have gained from past years. In addition, the class is mostly composed of third-year law students, those in their final year. Offering it every other year will mean, realistically, that half the student body will lose the opportunity to take the course.

More than 30 individuals, including the Dane County Sheriff, Dane County District Attorney, circuit and appellate court judges, defense attorneys, survivors of crime and victim advocates have contacted the Law School dean asking that this course be reinstated on an annual basis. Former students have done the same.

The new challenges sparked by the realities of the world in which we live today, demand new solutions, such as teaching about crime victims during the formal education process. After all, a law school that instructs students about criminal law without teaching them about crime victims is like a medical school teaching about diseases and their causes without focusing on patient care.

The University of Wisconsin Law School is a public institution funded with taxpayer dollars. The public’s voice should matter. I invite you to contact University of Wisconsin Law School Dean Margaret Raymond at mraymond2@wisc.edu and ask her to reconsider her decision.

-Jill Karofsky

UW Law School Adjunct Professor and Director of the Office of Crime Victim Services at the Wisconsin Department of Justice

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