Repairing Harm: Victim Services at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office
In 2020, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office created a new position: Director of Victim Services, a role filled by Colleen McIngalls, a long-time victim advocate. In this innovative new role, Colleen is focusing on investing in victim services in order to repair harm and elevate the role of victims in the criminal justice process — something she views as an important part of criminal justice reform.
“Delays in the system can prolong a victim’s journey toward recovery. For some people, a decision from the court about what happened to them can provide validation of their experience. My position is a new one for the office and we are looking at how we can broaden some of our victim services to areas in the office where we don’t have enough, while targeting victims in highest need.” — Colleen McIngalls, Director of Victim Services
Better serving victims starts with understanding victims’ needs, which can be incredibly diverse in the wake of an incident. This includes safety planning, medical needs, psychological and emotional trauma, financial needs, and navigating a complex legal system.
“Victims may suffer from long term medical needs — we see that especially in vehicular assault cases where sometimes the injuries can be extremely significant when someone is hit by a drunk driver. The same is true for gun violence.”
These needs don’t immediately go away, as Colleen explains:
“Sometimes people have to redesign their whole life based on a long term injury: for instance they might be confined to a wheel chair, or maybe they get released from a hospital but they have to go to a skilled nursing facility for a long period of time after the incident.”
A lot of people have complex trauma reactions which can look like reexperiencing the crime or having nightmares or dreams that trigger reliving that event. There’s a whole range of psychological responses that someone might experience after being victimized.
Victims may also not have a support system and so in those cases they must be reliant on themselves to navigate their healing journey.
In addition to navigating the criminal legal process, victims may also have civil legal needs. This might include a protection order, immigration assistance, housing and employment issues, or family law issues — like getting a parenting plan into place or seeking legal separation.
Meeting Victims’ Needs
Historically, addressing these needs have not been a major focus of the criminal justice system. But as our office advances restorative justice practices — which emphasizes repairing harm for victims and the community — we’re working to change that. According to Colleen, “doing justice” isn’t just about punishment or accountability, it’s also about making sure victims needs are met and that they have a voice in developing outcomes.
In our Domestic Violence Unit, advocates connect with victims early in felony and misdemeanor cases. Shortly after someone has been arrested and placed into custody, our office checks in with victims to provide resources about what’s in our community that might be able to help. One important way advocates help is by providing information: what to expect in the hearing and throughout the process.
“It’s a confusing process, and having advocates to help navigate and support victims is extremely important.”
Safety considerations are also key; what happens if the offender is released, what sort of safety precautions the victim might want to put in place. Additionally, victims have a right to give comment to the court whenever release is an option, so advocates help victims navigate that process and can even give a statement on behalf of that victim.
Advocates spend a lot of time talking about recovery and getting victims connected to community agencies who can address some of their long term needs. There are also state supported programs like the Crime Victim Compensation Program, which is administered by the Department of Labor and Industries, and can help pay for medical expenses, pay lost wages, or cover related funeral expenses.
We are also concerned about victims’ health during the pandemic. If at all possible, we want victims to be able to appear remotely to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission from coming to the courthouse in person.
Centering Victims in Criminal Justice Reform
“When we talk about criminal justice reform, we frequently leave victims out of the conversation. I’m really proud of our office — understanding the importance victims have in our process and providing a voice for victims. Not only as the system currently operates but in what it could look like in the future.”
Victims should have a voice at the table. As we’re looking at different types of reforms, we need to make sure we not only provide resources to people who potentially perpetrated the crime to rehabilitate and hold them accountable, but also acknowledge the harm bestowed on victims and adequately provide them with support services. That won’t always be through the criminal justice system — but by building capacity for those services in our community.