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Citizens should support bills to strengthen justice

When we watch the news and see the headlines of unspeakable crimes that are committed each day in our community, we react with disgust, anger and sadness. We count our blessings that our loved ones are safe and pray that these tragedies never find their way to our door.

The reality, however, is that 18.7 million Americans are directly harmed by crime each year, and each crime affects many more family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

The cost of these crimes impacts all of us. In a 2008 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for both reported and unreported crimes, the total economic loss to victims was $1.19 billion for violent crime and $16.21 billion for property crime.

Is our community ready to take action during these times of frustration and sadness? This year, National Crime Victims Rights Week, which concludes today, carries the theme of Extending the Vision: Reaching Every Victim. It is a time to remember those who have been hurt, killed or impacted by crime, whether it is homicide, child abuse, financial crimes, drunken driving, domestic violence or sexual assault. It is an opportunity to help ensure that crime victims have access to the help they deserve and the rights they are promised.

For those of us who work with crime victims daily, we not only have the task of assisting them through the trauma caused by these crimes, we also advocate and assist them through the criminal justice process. Often the most frustrating experience is to explain to crime victims that the crime committed against them will only carry a certain sentence under New York State law. Victims are left with a feeling of powerlessness and often wonder why they bothered to come forward in the first place.

We as a community, however, can create change and have already begun to do this. In recent years, we have added or expanded laws for stalking and successfully pushed for the near-lethal crime of "choking" to be defined as what it really is: criminal obstruction of breathing or strangulation, and stiffened the penalties for this crime. There are several other laws in the works.

While it is slow, it is still progress. Get involved by calling or writing your legislators or joining local community groups to find out more about bills that may be in the works.

For more information about National Crime Victims Rights Week and activities around the state go to http://www.ovs.ny.gov/home.

There are several crime victims programs in the area to help victims, families and witnesses. If you are a victim of domestic violence in Erie County you may call the 24-hour helplines at (716) 862-HELP and (716) 884-6000.

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Tina Pilkey is senior domestic violence counselor for the Erie County District Attorney's Office.