Garvin Ambrose
Garvin Ambrose (Gary Lewis)

In April, Connecticut State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose spoke enthusiastically about heading up a new state commission that would be the first of its type in the country.

Made up of lawyers, Judicial Branch officials, police chiefs and others, the Victims’ Rights Enforcement Advisory Committee was to review policies and services afforded to crime victims and assess how well Connecticut complies with the constitutional and statutory rights of victims. In Ambrose’s view, there was a lot of work to be done: While the state had good victims’ rights laws on the book, he told the Law Tribune, it wasn’t doing a good job of enforcing them.

Now someone else will have to push that process forward. On June 12, Ambrose announced his resignation, just 16 months after being appointed to the job and about two weeks after the advisory committee met for the first time. According to a news release distributed by the office of Gov. Dannel Malloy, Ambrose will work until July 18 and then relocate to his hometown of Chicago to take on a “new professional opportunity.” Ambrose told the CT News Junkie website the move is a “family decision” and that he was offering new details on his new job because the employer had not announced it yet.

Before coming to Connecticut, Ambrose served as executive assistant state’s attorney and legislative liaison in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in Chicago, where he served as an advocate on issues of civil, criminal, juvenile and family law, and assisted in the development of legislative initiatives. Prior to that, he had been an assistant state’s attorney in the same office’s Juvenile Justice Bureau.

“While I am saddened by my personal decision to resign from this great office, I am confident that the successes of my wonderful staff and I over the past 15 months have once again made the Office of the Victim Advocate a relevant part of the state system on behalf of crime victims,” Ambrose said in a prepared statement. “It is my hope that the relationships that we repaired and gained, the policy and legislative victories that we attained, as well as the necessary rebranding of the Office of the Victim Advocate will continue in my absence.”

The Victim Advocate operates as the ombudsman between crime victims and the criminal justice system. Responsibilities include recommending system-wide improvements to the General Assembly, working with private and public agencies to enforce the constitutional rights of victims, and filing appearances in court to advocate for victims.

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, Ambrose served on a task force that debated whether the state’s Freedom of Information Law should be changed so certain crime scene information could be withheld. Ambrose favored greater privacy rights for crime victims.

Ambrose was the unanimous selection of the Victim Advocate Advisory Committee to fill the position, and was appointed by the governor in February 2013. The same seven-member committee, chaired by Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s top criminal justice policy adviser, is scheduled to begin meeting June 17 to begin the process of evaluating potential replacements. The governor must appoint a new advocate from the committee’s list of recommended finalists.

Political Challenges

Ambrose’s predecessor was Michelle Cruz, a former Massachusetts prosecutor, who left the Victim Advocate position following published reports that she and the governor differed sharply on a state initiative that allowed inmates to reduce their sentences through good behavior and participation in educational programs.

Cruz, who had been appointed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2007, had replaced Jim Papillo, a West Hartford lawyer who told the Law Tribune in 2013 that the position was not an easy one to handle politically.

“It’s pretty clear the position calls for you to be part of the criminal justice system and work with all of the departments and agencies but also to police them,” said Papillo. “And when you speak out against policies that are adverse to crime victims, you’re going to get very powerful people in the state angry at you.”

In his statement, Ambrose made no mention of any rift with other public officials. “I would like to personally thank Governor Malloy and his administration for their unwavering support,” Ambrose said. “From his efforts to increase the office’s levels of budgetary appropriations to his recent creation of the Victims’ Rights Enforcement Advisory Commission, Governor Malloy has remained a steadfast supporter of crime victims in this state.”

In the April interview, Ambrose noted 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 enforcement of victims’ rights laws.

For example, he said, while there are 45 court buildings in Connecticut, there are only 28 staffers from the Office of Victim Services in those courthouses. There is, he said, 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.”

The goal of the new commission, said Ambrose, is to push Connecticut forward so it is “setting a standard for the country.”

“I want to thank Garvin for his service to the people of Connecticut,” said Governor Malloy. “Working with criminal justice professionals, crime victims and advocates, Garvin and his staff have been strong voices in pursuing the interests of victims in their efforts to seek justice. I wish him well on whatever opportunity comes next.”

Among his accomplishments during his tenure is the recent effort to effectuate the creation of the Governor’s Victims’ Rights Enforcement Advisory Commission, which places Connecticut at the forefront of the discussion on the enforcement of the constitutional and statutory rights of crime victims.