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State changes victim alerts

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The Indiana Department of Correction recently changed how it will notify those who register to find out where someone is in the system, whether it’s a transfer from one jail to another, a change in status, or a legal hearing.

Some advocates were not happy with how they were notified of the change shortly before the July 1 date and that they had no say in the process, including the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Domestic Violence Network, who sent a letter to their partner agencies and advocates around Indiana in late June.

Brent Myers, director of registration and victim services for the DOC, said things have been running smoothly since the transition, and he has been working with advocates, sheriffs, prosecutors’ offices, and others who come into contact with victims to let them know of the changes.

Included in his communication efforts are marketing materials for those who come into contact with victims, although Laura Berry Berman, executive director of the ICADV, said she had yet to receive anything as of July 13. Myers said those materials were in process and would be distributed in mid-July.

Myers said there were four main reasons for ending their contract with Appriss for Indiana SAVIN, Indiana Sex and Violent Offender Registry, and Alert Notification Services (VINE), which provided notification to victims. The reasons they switched to an in-house system are: to serve more, spend less; to personalize the notification process; to improve information flow to victims, law enforcement, and other justice partners; and to leverage current technology.

The new system is online at http://indianasavin.in.gov.

Myers said the contract with Appriss cost about $1 million per year, and this program will cost $375,000 per year by bringing it in house and using the Microsoft program Information Strategies.

Part of the need to save money was there was no dedicated budget for the notification system, he said.

“There’s no specific line item other than victim assistance, and that does not cover the operational costs as the program was implemented, so we had to look for other funding sources. Toward the end of last summer, we were introduced to Microsoft and their preferred partner, Information Strategies through the Indiana Office of Technology,” Myers said.

He said another goal of the new system is to provide better communication with victims. Under both systems, victims can choose to receive e-mail or phone-call alerts regarding the status of an offender.

Under the old system, victims would receive an automated call, yet the new system will offer a call from a real person so the victim can ask any questions he or she might have at that time.

This is particularly helpful, Myers said, when the call is regarding a hearing where, instead of only telling the victim there will be a hearing, the person calling from the DOC can tell the victim what it could mean. In some cases, he added, the caller could explain to the victim that there was a new criminal charge, a clarification, or a sentencing modification.

However, advocates are cautious about how the personalized calls will work, Berman said.

For one, she and other advocates have expressed concern regarding victims who do not speak English as a first language, as the Appriss system could make automated calls and send e-mails in multiple languages.

Myers said he was aware of the concern, and the DOC could make calls in Spanish, and could use a translation service for non-English speaking victims.

Berman also was concerned about how much training the callers had received, at least early on in the transition, and whether three callers would be enough, as the DOC had specified to victims advocates.

“Our concern on victim notification is VINE was making 10,000 auto phone call attempts per month, and registering 2,500 new registrants per month,” she said, adding she was unsure whether three callers Monday through Friday during business hours and support staff during evenings and weekends would be able to keep up with those requests.

Berman added she had called the DOC after receiving an automatic e-mail that went to all subscribers under the old system July 1, and received a message that the line was busy and to try calling back later.

When she called at a later date to request information on someone she knew had been booked in and out of jail, she said the person who answered was “very nice and polite” but didn’t seem to have the information she needed.

Because she and other advocates are unsure of the new system, they’ve been suggesting to other advocates to call the jail commander if they know where an offender has been booked because the sheriffs will know and will give the information to victims, and to continue enrolling in the system.

She added some jail commanders have been calling victims on their own when an offender is released.

However, she wasn’t quite at the point of trusting the new system, especially in cases where there was a risk of lethality for a domestic violence victim if the offender would soon be released.

“I have registered against seven offenders in Marion County, one of the counties that is online,” she said in an interview July 13. “As of this morning, two have been released, and I never received a notification. One was released July 8 and still no notice. And no notification on the other one who was released July 9.”

She said another advocate she knew had also registered against offenders, but that advocate who requested phone and e-mail notice got an e-mail notice, but didn’t receive a phone call until three hours after release.

“In domestic violence and domestic battery cases, we’re talking about some of the most lethal situations where the person is going back to a home where the violence occurred. If the victim is at home and not in shelter, and thinks the offender is incarcerated and that they will be notified when the offender is released, there is a risk of further violence, even a risk of death,” she said.

Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, legal director of ICADV, added that not only domestic violence victims use the notification system.
 

kerry blomquist Blomquist

“I know a fair number of judges, attorneys, and public personalities who are affected by this,” she said. “Not just domestic violence victims, but people who’ve been stalked, judges who’ve been threatened … anyone who’s been a victim of a crime in the VINE system.”

Myers said the DOC will continue to improve the new system and that he is aggressively working with vendors for the booking systems to get more jails online. While there was no specific timeline for all jails to be online, specifications were released in mid-July to vendors, and he hoped by Aug. 1 that many of the local jails would be integrated into the new system.

He also said the DOC is encouraging feedback – positive and negative – through the website, http://indianasavin.in.gov.•

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