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Victims' Rights in the Time of COVID
If you are a victim of crime, your rights do not diminish in a time of public health crisis. It remains incumbent upon the courts to adhere to the legal rights of all participants in all justice processes.
However, the way you receive those rights may look a bit different. For instance, you may be offered the opportunity to provide testimony via virtual means, rather than in person.
If you have questions about how your county is handling victim services and rights during this time, please contact your local victim service agency.
If you feel your rights are being violated, please contact our office immediately.
Notifications and Testimony
Under the jurisdiction of OVA, you will continue to receive all post-sentencing rights. This includes notifications about the movement of your offender, state proceedings that may have been moved or are continuing, and the opportunity to provide testimony related to parole eligibility.
OVA team members are working to ensure that all victims/survivors who want to provide testimony are afforded the opportunity to do so. Although in person testimony is difficult right now, alternative means continue to be available to you. Those include:
• Providing verbal comments over the phone to a Victim Assistance Coordinator who will transcribe them and forward them to the PA Parole Board.
• Mailing or emailing your written comments to OVA who will ensure they are provided to the PA Parole Board.
Crime victims should be allowed to use electronic signatures on all legal documents and court filings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Requiring crime victims to submit documents with original or “wet ink” signatures places victims’ physical, mental and emotional health at risk; conflicts with crime victims’ federal and state rights to be treated with fairness and respect; jeopardizes the victim’s and society’s interest in a just resolution of cases; endangers the health of individuals who work within or otherwise use the justice system; and is inconsistent with national, state and local efforts to limit the spread of the virus. (Reference NCVLI response.)
Commonwealth of PA legal documents are now to be accepted electronically, including OVA forms and releases. If you need an electronic copy of an OVA form, please contact our office.
State Inmate Releases due to COVID
Under the Governor’s reprieve order, the PA Department of Corrections continues to evaluate inmates incarcerated in state correctional facilities who are close to their potential parole date, as it reduces the risk of spreading the virus within institutions.
OVA is working to ensure that no cases with identified victims are being considered for release. By working with our state partners, we are eliminating personal injury crimes, such as burglary, theft, etc. from consideration. Violent crimes are not being considered for early release.
Please note that normal parole decision making operations are continuing at this time. If you are notified that the offender in your case is being considered for release, that does not mean it is a COVID-related consideration. Your right to provide comments to the PA Parole Board regarding the offender in your case remains intact during this time and an OVA team member will assist you.
County Inmate Release due to COVID
Inmates housed in county correctional facilities are not subject to the Governor’s reprieve order; however, at the direction of the Supreme Court – each county is required to review cases in their own facilities to determine if there are inmates appropriate for release. Because each county is different, you should reach out to your district attorney to see what the process is for any early releases.
Board of Pardons during COVID
At this time, public hearings will take place at the discretion of the Board of Pardons. Some of these events may be offered virtually. You will continue to receive notifications regarding your offenders’ application status and hearing date, is applicable.
Questions regarding crime victims’ services for Board of Pardons, can be directed to RA-PMOVABOP@pa.gov.
Reopening Courts and Victim Safety
On behalf of crime victims, OVA respectfully requests that courts implement the following guidelines:
•Not livestreaming hearings via Facebook, YouTube or alternative channels for criminal and civil protection order proceedings, release hearings, or other hearings in which the court anticipates testimony or other evidence concerning the victim will be at issue;
•Ensuring that no cameras or audio recording capture a victim's image or voice during any recorded proceeding that will be broadcast, or ensuring redaction prior to broadcast;
•Limiting the number of "public" participants for any Zoom or otherwise technology-assisted hearing to a number that does not exceed the physical capacity of the courtroom in which the hearing would have been conducted under ordinary circumstances;
•Affording the victim/witness an opportunity to proceed via a pseudonym in any technology-assisted hearing—and upon such election issuance of a court order directing all parties and witnesses to refer to the victim/witness via the pseudonym; and
•Preventing release of recordings of hearings to public websites, or if such release is to happen for it not to happen without prior review by a victim/witness, their advocate, and their attorney to ensure nondisclosure of any information that jeopardizes victim privacy or safety.