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Budget issues end low-cost Victims Advisory Council

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Twenty-two-year-old Brooks Todd died about 15 minutes after the pickup truck he was riding in spun out of control, hit the guardrail and rolled off the road near Ruby Reservoir outside Alder in April 2002. The driver, Steve Atchison, who was drinking prior to the accident, left Todd at the scene with a broken neck and unable to breathe.

"He left Brooks in the truck and he went and hid for 24 hours," says Todd's mother, Mardi Elford.

Elford will never know if her son could have survived the accident had Atchison stayed to help. She says that possibility almost makes grieving harder as she continues to grapple with anger directed toward the young man who took her son away.

Devastated by the loss, Elford's marriage fell apart. As she struggled to piece her life back together, a probation officer put her in touch with Anita Richards, a long-time victims' rights advocate. Richards suggested Elford join the Montana Crime Victims Advisory Council, which, until January, advised the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC) on victim-related concerns.

State budget cuts in Helena are forcing difficult decisions across the board, including the Department of Corrections’ elimination of the Crime Victims Advisory Council. Advocates say the council, which only cost taxpayers $5,700 last year, silences an important opportunity for the victim’s voice to be heard. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • State budget cuts in Helena are forcing difficult decisions across the board, including the Department of Corrections’ elimination of the Crime Victims Advisory Council. Advocates say the council, which only cost taxpayers $5,700 last year, silences an important opportunity for the victim’s voice to be heard.

The 13-member council, created in 1998, used a direct line to DOC to assist the agency in crafting policies and procedures, as well as propose legislation. Tanya Campbell, a council member who also works as Missoula County's senior criminal victims' advocate, says the advisory body specifically lobbied for the creation of the Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE) program, which now keeps victims apprised of offender incarceration status and location. The advocates also helped push to get the statewide sexual offender registry up and running, and encouraged DOC to create a letter bank, through which offenders can express remorse in written correspondence to victims.

For Elford, "restorative justice" efforts like encouraging victim-offender dialogue not only helped her own grieving, but also allowed her to improve a flawed system.

"It also made me see that there were things I could do for other people," she says. "It was important work."

Elford uses the past tense because the DOC notified her in January that Gov. Brian Schweitzer's office is eliminating the Crime Victims Advisory Council as part of the state's budget cuts. The advisory council cost taxpayers just $5,700 in overhead last year, or approximately .000031 percent of the DOC's $180 million budget.

"We were just shocked that it came about so suddenly and without any warning," says Elford. "It was just—boom—we got a letter in the mail."

Most of the council budget covered travel expenses for advocates who commuted from counties across the state to quarterly meetings in Helena. About $800 went toward meals and a small stipend distributed to voting members. Elford empathizes with state administrators struggling to balance a shrinking checkbook, but maintains the governor's office could have done more to keep the council alive.

"My biggest disappointment is that the governor and the budget director did not work with the council to see how they could reduce the cost," she says. "I think everybody would have been happy if they could have just received even a part of their travel money...Most of [the council members] are pretty doggone dedicated to what they do and helping people."

DOC Director Mike Ferriter says his agency notified Elford as soon as it saw the cut coming, and will continue to welcome the council members' opinions, even if it's in an unofficial capacity.

"We'll maintain our emphasis on victims. We know that crime victims sometimes feel forgotten," he says. "They're vocal and they should be. And we need to pay attention. And we will."

As the DOC trims $6.8 million off of its budget, Ferriter says he understands that the council's expenses seem like a small slice of his overall operating budget. But the nature of this year's financial crisis means saving wherever he can.

"It all adds up," Ferriter says. "These are tough calls right now."

Sarah Elliott, the governor's communications director, notes the Victims Advisory Council is one of seven advisory bodies being eliminated, along with those tackling family health, homelessness and HIV.

"We're looking for ways to do more with less," Elliott says.

Elford, with the support of other council members, including Campbell, made a final appeal last week to an interim Legislative Finance Committee, but to no avail. State Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, says little can be done even when the dollar amount is so small.

"This is kind of like when the Titanic was going down and they were trying to do everything they could to keep it afloat," says Wanzenried.

That's not good enough for Campbell and Elford.

"This was one opportunity for the victim's voice to be heard," Campbell says.

Elford adds the state's thinking is shortsighted. There are lessons to be learned from people like her, who, even in their suffering, strive to curb future crime.

"The main thing I think you'll hear from a lot of victims," she says, "is that you don't want this happening to anybody else's family."

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