Crime victims in New Orleans may start to feel a little more secure this fall, officials say, thanks in part to the lobbying efforts of the late Sandy Krasnoff, who was a colorful, controversial victims' rights advocate.
Beginning in 1999, the blustery Krasnoff petitioned the Legislature, law enforcement and anyone else who would listen to implement a statewide 24-hour computerized notification system that would alert crime victims and their families to the whereabouts of abusive spouses, rapists and other offenders.
Krasnoff, 68, died July 1 from injuries suffered in an auto accident. But the legislation he successfully championed will result in a statewide Louisiana Victim Notification System that will be phased into all 64 parishes by the fall of 2004, officials say.
In a 1999 letter to a state representative, Krasnoff, the executive director of Victims and Citizens Against Crime in New Orleans, wrote: "I assure you that this system is the most important thing that can be done to assist victims in 'every nook and cranny' of the state of Louisiana. Lives and property will be saved and the criminal justice system will work more effectively and efficiently."
Advocates of the system say it will provide more peace of mind for crime victims. Originally passed by the Legislature in 1999 at Krasnoff's urging but as an unfunded mandate, the victim notification system is now rolling out parish-by-parish, across the state. "This type of notification system is the wave of the future. ... Victims should be able to keep track of the people that victimize them," says Raphael Goyeneche, president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission.
The Louisiana victim notification system will be served by a $1 million-plus annual contract between the state and the Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE) system of Louisville, Ky.-based Appriss Inc.
VINE (www.vinelink.com) is a vast database of criminal offender information that has a toll-free telephone number for each of the states in which it operates, as well as a nationwide number for information (800-816-0491). The system provides timely information -- including prison transfers, escapes, court proceedings, parole hearings, release dates and deaths -- about people charged with serious crimes. States pay $100,000 to $1 million a year to participate, based on inmate population. Because Louisiana has more than 36,000 inmates, the highest per capita prisoner rate in the nation, the state's contract will be at the top of the VINE scale, officials say.
VINE was founded eight years ago after a 1993 murder that shocked Louisville. Mary Byron was shot to death on her 21st birthday by her ex-boyfriend, who had been arrested and jailed for kidnapping and raping her weeks earlier. On the night of her murder, Byron and her family thought the man was in jail. In fact, he had been released on bail.
John Byron, the victim's father and a victims' rights advocate, endorses the VINE system in its promotional material. "This is a system that, had it been in place, could have saved Mary," Byron says.
At the time of the Mary Byron murder, Davis and a partner were working at a company in Louisville that designed computer systems to control fire, security and safety system at large office buildings. In 1994, they co-founded Appriss Inc. "We got with the local county and helped them create an idea on how they could automate their victim notification process," Davis says. "And when the system came online we started marketing it to other states around the country."
VINE operates in 18 states and serves crime victims in federal cases nationwide. Most states in the program allow for the public to use their state VINE system. Some states include public hospitals in their VINE databank because prisoners may be transferred to medical or mental health facilities. VINE also has worked with a few privately run prisons in Florida. Even before the legislative push to expand the program statewide, VINE was available to residents in three Louisiana parishes -- Caddo, St. Martin and Jefferson -- for several years. (The toll free number for Jefferson Parish is 800-770-9864.)
"Our victims have indicated that they find the system is helpful because they receive notification when somebody is released from jail," says David Wolff, an assistant district attorney in the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office, which has worked with the VINE system since 1999. Parish prosecutors -- who along with police officers may register with VINE to help keep track of their caseloads -- still notify victims and witnesses of important court dates by phone, he says. "But if it's after hours and we are not accessible, they can call the VINE system." Wolff adds.
"In many cases, VINE provides victims with peace of mind," says Mike Davis, co-founder of the system and president of Appriss Inc. "We also have seen a number of cases where victims feel like it has prevented another attack or, in some cases, saved their lives.
"The big impact we have is in the domestic violence system," he adds. "Advocates tell us it is domestic violence victims who gain the most benefit from the system."
According to Davis, the offender information released by VINE is public record and a victim's name or address is not required. "For victims, privacy is a major issue," he says. "All we need is a telephone number and zip code and that information is locked in the system and not able to be retrieved through any web or phone tool."
Today, Appriss Inc. is working with the state Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice in Baton Rouge to establish the Louisiana system. "They are better organized than most of the agencies we are working with," Davis says. "They really seem to have their act together."
In the coming months, he continues, the state commission and VINE will be connecting each of the parish jail facilities into the 150-employee National Victim Notification Center in Louisville. Inside the center, banks of computers and a staff monitor Louisiana's offender population. When an offender is released, VINE automatically checks to see if any victims or citizens have registered to receive information about the offender. The system pledges to alert victims to the offender's release immediately by phone, fax, email, pager or letter.
Most victims will use an automated system for locating an offender, Davis says. "However, there is a live operator available 24 hours a day if people need help." VINE also has a national Web site, though the Louisiana link is still under construction.
Victim notification systems are not new. Thirty-two states have victim notification laws. Since 1993, the state Department of Corrections & Public Safety (DOC) has had a policy requiring its prisons to notify victims whenever an offender is about to be discharged. And victim notification became a state law in 1995.
Jean Wall, director of the state DOC crime victims services bureau, says most victim notices by the state corrections department are generated by the records staff. "Most of these go out by certified mail, but it doesn't have the immediacy of a phone call," she says, comparing the existing program to the VINE system. "It seems like the automated component is of greater value locally, where things happen more quickly, where a suspect is arrested and quickly bonded out."
Cathy Fontenot, assistant warden at Angola, the state's only maximum security prison for men, says the crime victims services bureau is immediately notified whether inmates are "released or escaped or apply for a pardon or are paroled. If they are released, we send the information to crime victims through Jean (Wall). The paperwork goes to law enforcement and crime victims. The victims are the reason we're here. We never forget the victims."
Davis says the VINE program's combination of automated technology and live operators sets itself apart from prison notification systems, which make the victim do the work. "What you traditionally see are systems that let the public call to locate an offender, call and ask if they are there, but you don't see many systems that push out a notification to the victim." Davis says. "And that is really what delivers the information to the victims in a way that they can use it."
Under more traditional systems, anxious victims can call a sheriff's jail or state prison every day. "With our system, victims can call once and register and know that we will call them when a change occurs," he says.
VINE does have some limitations, however.
Appriss has a contract with the U.S. Department of Justice for their entire victim notification system. But the federal VINE system has been deliberately separated from the state VINE systems. "That was something the Department of Justice insisted upon," Davis says. "They did not want their data intermingled with the data of the states. Unfortunately, we have not been able to get past that yet. However, we have a hope that someday we can convince them to do that."
What this means to crime victims and other VINE users is that they can lose track of offenders who transfer from state prison to federal prison, which is not uncommon for convicts serving multiple sentences. In such cases, it would be up to the victim to notify the federal notification system and re-register to access their offender information.
Gov. Mike Foster is expected to announce the progress of the Louisiana VINE system before he leaves office in January. But Sandy Krasnoff will likely be remembered as its legislative architect and for his other work on behalf of crime victims, observers say.
Krasnoff's victims' advocacy legacy is complicated, however. A former New Orleans police officer and police union organizer, Krasnoff left the force to become a lawyer, but was disbarred in 1986 after the Louisiana Supreme Court found him guilty of mishandling four clients' funds. Krasnoff went on to build Victims and Citizens Against Crime, an influential nonprofit organization that championed victims' rights. A radio talk show host, he was appointed to six state boards and commissions, including the Supreme Court's Cost Containment Committee, an advisory panel that oversaw how state indigent defender funds were spent.
In 1996, he resigned from that panel in the wake of a Gambit Weekly investigation ("What About the Victims," March 26, 1996) detailing the misfortunes of Krasnoff's former clients, one from whom he had embezzled and failed to make restitution.
Still, Krasnoff continued his work as the head of Victims and Citizens Against Crime. By 1999, he was furiously lobbying the Legislature for a statewide victim notification system. The measure passed both houses unanimously and the governor signed it into law in 2000.
"I worked very closely with Sandy Krasnoff on that legislation," says state Rep. Joe Toomy, R-Gretna. "Sandy's input and involvement were critical in representing the victims' interests. His representation of the victims was important to passage of the legislation and the funding of the system."
Several years ago, after he was cited by the city for failing to fix up a blighted property he owned, Krasnoff told a Gambit Weekly reporter, "You know, one of these days, you're going to write something good about me."