A new Pennsylvania law will allow crime victims and their families to speak directly to members of the state Board of Probation and Parole.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation Tuesday amending the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act, which now permits victims and their surrogates to testify through written statements or phone calls, but not to tell their stories in person to board members.
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said the tipping point after years of victims’ rights advocacy was a case in her county last year.
In November, the board decided to parole former University of Pennsylvania professor Rafael Robb after he served the minimum sentence in an up to 10-year term for the 2006 killing of his wife, Ellen Gregory Robb.
“The family had wanted to speak in person, was not given that opportunity, and they made a lot of noise,” said Ferman.
In an effort Ferman organized alongside Ellen Gregory Robb’s brother and state Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, the board eventually decided to reverse its decision and keep Robb behind bars.
Vereb introduced a bill to clarify the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act in the state Legislature March 6.
“Once people realized, then we received tremendous support from all corners of the community to change the law,” Ferman said in a phone interview, adding that virtually “anyone you could speak to” supported the change.
But Bill DiMascio, executive director of the prisoner rights advocate Pennsylvania Prison Society, is concerned about the new legislation.
“They had a law passed in almost record time with very little opportunity for any opposition,” said DiMascio. “All of that speaks to the significant amount of influence that this law does give to the victims.”
The time to hear from victims is during trials, DiMascio continued, not parole hearings focused on the progress inmates have made since serving their minimum sentences.
Other criminal justice advocates suggested the new law could help victims witness prisoners’ rehabilitation first hand when it goes into effect Sept. 1.
“They may change their opinion if they could sit down with the person,” said Richard Tut Carter, director of Human Rights Coalition’s Office in Chester.
Like DiMascio, Carter cautioned that victims should consider a prisoner’s progress toward reintegration in society rather than their crime.
The new law also does not appear to be raising eyebrows in public defenders offices across the state.
For Delaware County Public Defenders Office director Doug Roger, a measure designed to protect victims’ rights is positive – and it could even aid an offender’s rehabilitation, too.
“I can’t take a contrary view of it,” he said. “For these people who are incarcerated, maybe it’s good for them to know that ‘I may see so-and-so in the same room when I go in and ask for parole.'”