Garvin Ambrose
Garvin Ambrose (Gary Lewis)

State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose says that Connecticut is a national leader when it comes to having laws that grant crime victims specific legal rights. But he thinks Connecticut can do better.

In particular, he thinks that Connecticut agencies can better enforce the state’s Victims’ Rights Amendment, which was established in 1996 and guarantees victims, among other things, the right to be protected from the accused; the right to pursue restitution; and the right to be notified of court hearings and other steps in the criminal justice process.

“We’re ahead of the curve as far as affording the rights of the victims, but as far as the enforcement …we are not,” Ambrose said.

Earlier this month, Ambrose was named by Gov. Dannel Malloy to head a commission made up of lawyers, Judicial Branch officials, police chiefs and others which will review policies and services afforded to crime victims. The commission’s mission is to make specific recommendations about how well the state complies with the constitutional and statutory rights of victims.

It’s the first state commission of its kind in the country, Ambrose said.

Others on the commission include Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll III; Linda Cimino, the director of the Office of Victims Services for the Judicial Branch; and Laura Cordes, the executive director of Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, Inc.

Ambrose said over the years there have been concerns over whether the rights of victims are understood and observed by professionals in the criminal justice system. Some of the concerns include lack of written orders of restitution by judges; lack of notice to victims about court hearings involving those accused of crimes against them; lack of notice about opportunities to speak in court regarding plea deals and sentencing; and insufficient private meeting space for victims to meet with victim advocates.

Ambrose, a lawyer who was named to his post early last year, said that there are 45 court buildings in Connecticut, yet there are only 28 staffers from the Office of Victim Services in those courts.

There is a “huge necessity for more advocates to service the crime victims who may go untouched in some of these courts, especially the juvenile matters courts where only three of the 12 courts have a dedicated [victim advocate],” Ambrose said. He noted that seven of the 28 victim advocates do “double duty,” working in both geographic area and judicial districts courts, which creates a “potential for overwork.”

“As part of the commission, I hope to discuss this issue and to see whether it is feasible to close this 17-person gap in the near future to allow for one advocate per court,” Ambrose said.

Another issue that victims currently face is a lack of privacy in courthouses where there is no space for a victim advocate to meet with a victim. So they often end up meeting in a hallway, with the accused not too far away. “Creating that space is a necessity,” Ambrose said. “We’re looking at a best practices of sorts of how we can improve even more.”

Ambrose said that only 14 states have an official state victims’ advocate office. Yet, he said, Connecticut is behind states such as Oregon and Alaska, as well as the federal government, in actually enforcing victims’ rights provisions. The goal of the commission, said Ambrose, is to push Connecticut forward so it is “setting a standard for the country.”

As part of their work, commission members will survey services available in other states and from the federal government. They will recommend to the governor any needed changes, which might include better training and improved coordination among state and local criminal justice agencies and social service providers. The commission is expected to report its findings by Jan. 1, 2015.

Another commission member is Mario Thomas Gaboury, the dean of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice & Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. Gaboury said he hopes the commission will bring balance to the system by establishing a fair and practical approach to victims’ rights enforcement

He agrees that ever since the passage of the Victims’ Rights Amendment in 1996, Connecticut has “moved closer a national leadership role in this arena of progressive criminal justice system reform.”

But he added that the “key component” that’s still missing is “a clear enforcement mechanism. Regrettably, the legal adage stating that ‘a right without a remedy is no right at all’ rings sadly true for victims and survivors in Connecticut.”•