Loudoun County's Victim Witness Program has entered a new era.
The office for the program, which aids crime victims and witnesses by guiding them through the court process, was relocated last summer from cramped quarters in the commonwealth's attorney's office to a spacious, remodeled former courtroom in the courthouse.
Where a juvenile court judge once sat is now the waiting area. Nearby is a children's play corner decorated with vibrant drawings by kids.
And the program has a new face: Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Nicole Wittmann.
Wittmann came on board in April as the coordinator of the victim-witness program, which had gone several months with no one at the helm. While she tries domestic and juvenile cases here and there, Wittmann's central focus is the management of the $383,000 program.
Wittmann's appointment marks the first time the program has been run by a prosecutor; previously, it was headed by a juvenile probation officer, like many victim-witness programs around the state. Senior prosecutors hope the change will foster better communication between them and the program -- and help iron out kinks that sometimes can stand in the way of successful trials.
The overarching goal, according to Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney James P. Fisher, is twofold: more convictions and, when appropriate, longer prison sentences for the convicted.
The program's three case workers, also known as advocates, help the trial process by reaching out to crime victims and witnesses, concentrating on those who have suffered serious personal offenses, such as rape victims, family members of people who have been murdered and witnesses to violent crimes. However, all victims and witnesses are eligible and welcome to work with the program, Wittmann said.
Case workers' tasks are varied. Among other things, they keep victims and witnesses informed of court dates and let them know who will prosecute the case. They offer referrals to counseling services and teach crime victims about their rights -- which, in Virginia, can include protection and financial assistance.
They walk victims and witnesses through the court process, which Wittmann said can be daunting, puzzling and quite unlike what they see on TV legal dramas. For many victims and witnesses, courtrooms are fraught with cumbersome legal terms, stern-looking lawyers and uncomfortable encounters with defendants, she said.
"We're there, quite frankly, to hold their hand, to make them feel more comfortable," Wittmann said.
Victim-witness programs became popular in the 1980s. Some are housed in police departments and run by law enforcement officers; others are directed by juvenile probation officers, as Loudoun's was.
That set-up was not effective, Fisher said. He said there was a "great disconnect" between case workers and prosecutors. That meant they sometimes wasted time -- and paperwork -- by advising victims and witnesses about the same issues. Even worse, it meant prosecutors occasionally lost track of crucial witnesses or did not meet victims and witnesses until trial day.
"That was obviously something we needed to change," Fisher said. "We don't want that happening."
Now case managers will be required to meet with prosecutors weekly to discuss cases. And they will help ensure that prosecutors are able to interview victims and witnesses and go over testimony with them.
"It's going to result in much better preparation," Fisher said. "The more empowered your case is, the likelier you are to get those longer sentences."
Wittmann, whose current tasks include recruiting an additional case manager and volunteers, said she knows from experience how valuable victim-witness programs are. She spent seven years prosecuting juvenile and domestic cases in Arlington County before coming to Loudoun, and another two years in Florida before that.
"If you're smart," she said, "you work very closely with your victim-witness case manager."