For victims of serious crimes the prospect of facing the offender again can be a gut-wrenching experience fraught with memories of past horrors.
The logistics of traveling to a parole board hearing to share how they’ve been affected by an offender’s actions also can cause headaches.
To ease some of that pain, as well as make it easier for victims or their families to participate in the parole hearings, the state Board of Probation and Parole has implemented over past five years a videoconferencing system that allows those directly affected by an offender’s crimes to give testimony during a parole hearing without having to be in the same room.
Seven of the board probation and parole’s 40 offices statewide are now equipped with videoconferencing technology connected to the prisons where the parole hearings are held.
The program’s pilot initiative launched back in 2005, according to BOPP spokeswoman Melissa McDonald, and is now fully operational with equipment strategically positioned so victims shouldn’t have to drive more than a couple of hours to reach them, as opposed to potentially driving across the state to the prison where a hearing will be held.
“If the victim wants to have input, what we’re trying to do is make it less stressful and less expensive for them to take part in the process,” McDonald said.
The board has videoconferencing technology in its Nashville, Johnson City, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Cookeville, Jackson and Memphis offices.
Jennifer Brinkman, victim services director, offered the scenario of a Knoxville victim receiving notice that an offender housed in a prison on the border of west Tennessee is up for a parole hearing.
Rather than making arraignments to travel across the state and stay overnight for a hearing that begins early in the morning, a victim could go to a much closer office equipped for videoconferencing and speak before the parole board in a more comfortable setting, distanced from the offender.
Connected through a network of TVs with small cameras atop them, all parties involved, sometimes including multiple victims in multiple locations, can participate in a hearing simultaneously.
A victim’s testimony at a hearing can further illustrate the human cost of a crime.
In a hearing “the victim is able to ... share their information and keep that perspective of what happened in the public eye and to also bring some of the emotion that’s there,” Brinkman said, adding “to be able to bring it alive like that is really important.”
Also, victims or their families might not get to share their experiences during the offender’s trial, so a parole hearing testimony may be their only chance to share the effects a crime might have had.
In sensitive cases where victims wish to provide anonymous testimony, they’re allowed to prerecord their statements, which are then heard by only the parole board members.
Victim coordinators are also present at the videoconferencing session to help the participants understand what to expect during the process.
The videoconferencing technology could, in the future, allow out of state victims to participate in parole hearings as well.