A day in the life of a victim advocate
The criminal justice system can be a maze – one that is even more difficult to navigate for someone who's been a victim of a crime.
Juli Davis' job is to help them navigate it.
Davis is a victim advocate for the Aiken Department of Public Safety.
“Their responsibility is to make sure the victims understand the court process, and that they are notified of different steps like arrests, release from jail and all the court hearings and trials,” she said.
There was no such thing as a victim advocate in South Carolina until state law required each law enforcement agency in the 1990s to have an advocate.
Aiken Public Safety has one, while the county has about five.
The Second Circuit Solicitor's Office also has its own advocates.
State law dictates certain things victims of crimes have to be made aware of, including bond hearings for the accused and if the accused is released.
A victim's bill of rights is also written into the state code.
“Before that happened, victims just kind of found out when they found out,” Davis said.
Lt. Jake Mahoney, of Aiken Public Safety, said that before the law, a judge would set bond for a defendant based on what was written on the ticket or the warrant. The victim wasn't notified of the bond hearing.
“So, the judge set a bond, hearing nothing at all or just one side of the story,” he said.
‘Just touching base’
Davis said her day starts with checking her email for a review of the reports from the night before.
She has a file cabinet full of open cases, and can receive between one and 10 new cases on a given day.
After obtaining an incident report for a case, she calls the victim.
“Basically, I'm just touching base with them and checking on them,” she said. “I let them know before I hang up, if anything else happens, what they need to do.”
Davis also researches suspects in a case, paying close attention to previous charges.
For example, if a man charged with criminal domestic violence-first offense, or CDV-first, already has a previous conviction for that, Davis will notify the officers so they can charge him with CDV-second.
Not every person who is a victim of a crime will receive help from an advocate, as state law specifies certain crimes as “victim crimes.”
Some charges, such as CDV-first, are handled in City court, while others that carry longer sentences, such as CDV-second, will go to General Sessions.
Part of Davis' job is making sure victims are aware of not only the court process, but also the different resources available to them.
The S.C. State Office of Victim Assistance can assist victims with taking care of medical bills, counseling, burying a deceased victim or lost wages resulting from financial crimes.
In some cases, a victim advocate may respond directly to the scene of a crime.
‘The only witnesses’
Part of Davis' day is spent in the courtroom.
Some victims need guidance to be in the right place at the right time while others need emotional support.
“If you've never been a victim or had to testify in court, that can be very intimidating,” she said.
Cases can change drastically in the courtroom – a defendant can decide to plead guilty, which would move the case straight to sentencing, or he could plead not guilty, which would extend the length of the case.
Davis said the average time from incident to court is 30 days.
A victim may be afraid to testify, so Davis will ask the city solicitor if the victim needs to be there.
The victim can write a statement that is read in court, and it can be admitted into evidence if the victim isn't present in the courtroom.
“Most times, they need to be there because the victims in the cases are really the only witnesses,” she said.
Victim advocates maintain contact with a victim well after a case has been resolved, and Mahoney said he's seen advocates stay in contact for years after the fact.
‘I don’t sugarcoat’
It's important to be completely honest with victims, Davis said.
“I don't sugarcoat. Over the years, I've learned as a general rule, victims want you to tell them the truth,” she said. “I'll let them know: It's possible he's gonna be found not guilty and this is why. You need to prepare yourself for that.”
Davis said she also helps the victim understand and accept the final outcome of a case.
“It may be better that he gets sentenced to 26 weeks of counseling as opposed to 15 days in jail,” she said. “I help them understand the different ways the system works, and the best way to utilize it for them, and what they need to do to protect themselves.”
Davis said the most difficult cases to let go of are the ones involving children who are victims.
“Especially the ones where I've seen the photographs,” she said. “Those are the ones that are hard for me to get past.”
Helping people is one of the most difficult parts of the job, but also the best part, Davis said. No two victims are ever the same.
“Some of them are freaking out, some of them are angry, some of them are just like, ‘Well, I'm used to it at this point.' You just have to be able to fit their situation at that moment,” she said. “I like getting things accomplished for them or making them understand that, yeah, right now things suck, but eventually it will be fine. I like being able to make people feel more comfortable and get them through it when they probably wouldn't have been able to on their own.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.