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They help crime victim’s families. Now they’re getting help of their own.

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By Cameron Thompson

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    RICHMOND, Virginia (WTVR) — Richmond city leaders touted a line item in Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposed FY2024 budget Tuesday to maintain criminal justice reform and victim/witness support programs in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office (CAO) after a drop in federal funding.

“We hope this investment is just one of many others that will help to strengthen this programming and its impact,” said Stoney.

$54,000 of the proposed $100,000 would go towards the Victim/Witness Services department, whose director said a 10% drop in federal funding meant she would have had to eliminate one of her 11 positions.

The people in the department provide support and guidance to witnesses and victims in the court system. Director Sharron Saunders said it is a rewarding job.

“It means that we’ve helped someone who needed our help, that we were there for them when they were going through one of the probably most awful times in their lives,” she said, adding the help does not stop once the court process is over as they hold monthly homicide support group meetings. “We meet every first Wednesday of the month and it is a place where people can feel safe to talk about their loved ones. Because, even when you get a guilty, it’s not over for them. We’re on to the next case, but they still have to live without their loved one.”

“It’s proven that victims who receive appropriate care and support are more likely to cooperate with the criminal justice system. This is why victim assistance and witness protection programs are critical to the health of cities and to communities,” said Stoney. “They help to both protect and assist victims and witnesses, and improve our criminal justice system by bringing perpetrators of crime to justice.”

The other portion of the funding would be used to maintain the CAO’s Restorative Justice program, which was started with a federal grant in 2021.

The program allow for mediated conversations between a perpetrator and victim of a crime, if both agree, and an agreement on how to resolve their case.

“That is time that the court doesn’t need to deal with it, that the police aren’t involved, that there isn’t some retaliation on someone’s part, as the mayor mentioned, that the Victim/Witness office can spend more time on the more serious cases — the homicides and the rapes and robberies,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin.

She added that the program has been implemented 18 times, including the Adam Oakes cases, and successfully completed in 15 of them.

McEachin said some of the money will also be used to provide stipends to community volunteers that support the program known as “Community Circle Keepers.”

“[They] will be in the north side, the south side, the east end and the west end in the communities so that they will have a touch so what is happening and hopefully use their…restorative justice practice training, to prevent incidences from even rising to the level of law enforcement involvement or involvement by my office,” she said. “We realized that we couldn’t ask community members to volunteer all this time, that they deserve to be paid a wage.”

When asked, Stoney clarified that while similar in mission, the Circle Keepers are separate from the Violence Interrupters he announced in February 2022 — but Tuesday, he said that those three positions have finally been filled, along with a supervisor position.

“They’re obviously doing some training because this is some serious work that they’re dealing with…in the coming weeks, in the coming months, you will see them obviously working in the community,” said Stoney. “This is all working together, right? When you think about, and I’ve stated many times before, us throwing the kitchen sink at this gun violence issue in our city. This is what it looks like. It’s the full spectrum. You got to have prevention and intervention. But also you have the services of for…victims and witnesses.”

The mayor’s budget is under consideration by the city council, which should have it finalized by May.

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