Victims’ Rights during COVID-19

By: Rebecca L. Oakes
Daughter of Marge Kohlberg
Victim Services Specialist, Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center

The ubiquitous acronym “B.C.” is used to denote a marker in history, a shorthand for “Before (the birth of) Christ” used by Christian and secular historians. In these uncertain times, it might come to mean something different: Before COVID-19. This pandemic has been a dividing line for jobs, schools, academic careers and more. This singular event has joined us all in a common experience like few others.

A singular defining event may be a new experience for many but for victims of crimes and their family members, we have seen it before. My life changed in an instant on December 14, 1993, when my mom, Marge Kohlberg, along with Ben Grant, Sylvia Crowell, and Colleen O’Connor, were shot and killed (and Bobby Stephens was seriously injured), at a Chuck-E-Cheese restaurant in Aurora.

My experience in the days, weeks, and months following feels familiar now. Days blend, familiar routines feel strange, time feels incomprehensible, and most importantly our family and community members are getting sick and dying because of COVID-19, while others face the worst economic insecurity of their lives.

As a community, we are in fear and we are grieving. I am a fan of C.S. Lewis, and specifically his book “A Grief Observed.” There are a few passages that I have committed to memory over the years, one being:

And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting: just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up until this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure, empty successiveness.

C.S. Lewis’ comments were in reference to the death of a loved one, however, the feeling described is a fair description of what we are all experiencing now. Most are feeling some effects of this virus, many are also suffering grief of loss due to violent crime, some recent, some years ago. Grief is like fear. Grief is what many of us are experiencing due to COVID-19 and there is a parallel between this grief and fear, and the grief and fear that often accompanies victimization.

COVID-19 is having a dramatic impact on the experiences of victims of violent crime and their families. Colorado voted overwhelmingly to amend the State Constitution in 1993 to include rights for crime victims. Coloradoans agreed that victims should be treated with fairness, respect and dignity, and should be notified and have the right to be present for ‘critical stages’ in the criminal justice system. This mandate led to General Assembly enacting the Colorado Victim Rights Act (VRA). (C.R.S. 24-4.1- 302.5).

But, what does COVID-19 have to do with crime victims and their rights? On March 25, 2020 Governor Polis issued Executive Order D 2020 016 Temporarily Suspending Certain Regulatory Statutes concerning Criminal Justice. To expedite prison releases the Executive Order (ED) grants the Department of Corrections release authority typically reserved for the Colorado Board of Parole and local corrections boards. The Denver Post recently reported that “fifty-two Colorado prisoners were granted early release last week and hundreds more could be eligible as the state’s prison system creates more space to better treat the coronavirus.” Over the last few weeks, the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center has been alerted of numerous incidents of defendants being released on bond without notification to crime victims as required by law. This poses a public safety risk and a clear violation of the VRA.

Violating victims’ rights must not be a collateral consequence of the effort to contain COVID-19. Public safety should not be outweighed by public health. Constitutional rights for victims CANNOT be sacrificed under the flag of protecting public health. The Executive Order states that “nothing in this Executive Order supersedes the rights provided to victims through C.R.S. 24-4.1-302.5, the Colorado Victim Rights Act.” This promise must be honored, and the law must be followed.

Societies reveal their true character in times of crisis. We must remember the words of the United State Supreme Court in decision: “[J}ustice, though due to the accused, is due to the accuser also. The concept of fairness must not be strained till it is narrowed to a filament. We are to keep the balance true.” Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 122, (1934).

Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center is a nonprofit law firm providing pro bono legal services to crime victims in Colorado. Our mission is elevating victims’ voices, championing victims’ rights, and transforming the systems impacting them.