JoCo District Attorney candidates on the issues: Fully informing victims, families impacted by justice system

Johnson County District Attorney candidates weigh in on fulling informing victims and victims' families impacted by the justice system. Above, investigators marked the location of the victims belongings in the street with cones and spray paint in a July hit-and-run. Photo credit Mike Frizzell.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for office address ahead of November’s general election. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for Johnson County District Attorney.

We’ll be publishing the candidates’ responses to one item per day each day this week. Today we’re publishing the candidates’ responses to item #3:

How would/does your office ensure that victims, their families or others affected by the justice system are fully informed of the actions that are being taken in their case? What role do you allow them to play?

Zach Thomas (Democrat)

Communication with victims is of the utmost importance. Victims of crime deserve to be fully informed about the nature of the criminal justice process, the possible outcomes of a case, and have a clear avenue in which to submit their thoughts, feelings, and opinions about the case and what they would like to see happen. Victims have already been traumatized; there is absolutely zero reason their experience with the district attorney’s office should further add to that trauma.

Currently, there is a victim’s advocates unit within the District Attorney’s Office that handles much of the interaction with victims. This unit is staffed with wonderful people that care deeply about serving victims. Victims also deserve opportunities to communicate directly with the assigned prosecutor.

Prosecutors are responsible for making final determinations about how a case proceeds and sentencing recommendations. However, a prosecutor should never make these final determinations without first receiving input from a victim and offering an explanation to the victim about why decisions are being made.

Steve Howe (incumbent Republican)

Once charges are filed our (JIMS) system automatically sends out our victim impact statement for our office. We then use this information throughout the court process. We also use the lethality assessment in domestic violence cases, which has valuable information from the victim. A victim advocate from our office is assigned to every case to assist the victim in answering questions and concerns about the courts process. If needed, we also provide them with contact information for additional victim services with our partner agencies, MOCSA, Safehome and Sunflower House. To further assist domestic violence victims we have (2) Safehome employees embedded in our office. As the case proceeds through the criminal justice system victims and witnesses will have contact with our victim advocates, support staff and the assigned prosecutor. We consult with victims and their families regarding plea negotiations. Their wishes are given great deference. However, the ultimate decision rests with the District Attorney’s Office. In some domestic violence situations, where a victim opposes prosecution because of coercion and duress, we will proceed with the prosecution. At the time of sentencing we work with the victim to help ensure that they have a voice at sentencing. We work very hard with our partner agencies to have a victim centered approach to the criminal justice system.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item #4:

Do Kansas open records and open meetings laws give the public adequate access to the investigatory actions and decision-making procedures of law enforcement, the district attorney and the courts? Please explain your response.