An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Steve Derene
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Steve Derene
Interviewee:Steve Derene;
Madison, WI
Date of Interview:August 21, 2002
Location:Nashville, TN

Steve Derene

Executive Director, National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators




Biography

Steve Derene has worked with crime victim-related public policy issues since 1979 and, prior to his work with NAVAA, was Director of Research for the Wisconsin Department of Justice; Director of the Wisconsin Victim/Witness Assistance Program, and Wisconsin VOCA Assistance Administrator.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

In 1979, Steve Derene was the Director of Research and Information for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. He was responsible for coordinating the Department's legislative activities and when the Department was asked to take over the administration of the crime victim compensation program, he found himself in the middle of a political battle. At the same time that legislation was introduced to relocate the compensation program, the nation's first Victims' Bill of Rights was introduced and passed in Wisconsin. These early legislative successes led the way to additional victims' rights legislative successes.

"...we had probably a decade of remarkable success in the Legislature. It was particularly the 1983-1985 session -- we would pass dozens of bills. It was very effective. There was usually no opposition; we almost got spoiled because it was so simple. You almost didn't have to work for the legislation."

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

At that time there were approximately 35 victim compensation programs in the United States. While the programs were fairly well established, philosophical changes were taking place. Many of the first compensation programs were modeled after workers compensation programs. The more people learned about victimization and the needs of crime victims, the more victim- oriented the programs became. Regulations that had been in place to prevent fraudulent claims were abolished. With respect to funding for assistance, new laws were passed that provided some of the first funding for victim services.

Derene recalls that several other unique funding mechanisms were initiated to help cover the costs of victim services. Wisconsin was perhaps the first state to add a penalty assessment to convicted offenders' sentences. An additional feature of the penalty assessment was that if incarcerated offenders did not pay the surcharge, the fee would be deducted from their inmate wages.

Greatest Challenge

Derene's extensive legislative work in Wisconsin positioned him to work on the national-level effort to pass the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). As Derene recalls, interest on the Federal level had been primarily focused on the development of a Federal crime victim compensation program. It was the release of the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime Final Report in 1982 that spearheaded the idea of introducing Federal legislation to fund victim assistance programs. Derene gives credit to Senators John Heinz and Strom Thurmond, and Representative Peter Rodino, as the primary supporters of the Victims of Crime Act. He remembers there was a great deal of negotiation on the proposed legislation, and eventually the Senate and the House reached consensus to pass VOCA.

Derene had a front seat to examine the impact VOCA had on victim compensation and victim services. The guidelines that compensation programs had to follow in order to receive the funding resulted in expanded coverage. States were able to award more money and cover more victims because of VOCA. While it was much more difficult to quantify the impact of VOCA assistance funding, Derene recalls that there were many states where no victim services existed before VOCA became law. From Derene's perspective, "...not only has it expanded significantly by the distribution of money, but it has served as sort of a focal point. I think it is viewed, to a large extent, as a Federal/state partnership."

Successful Strategies

Derene credits early legislative successes to knowing the right individuals and giving legislative ideas to the right person to carry the bill forward. Because the legislative efforts came from the Department of Justice, the experiences of system-based victim service providers were more prominently featured than community-based service providers. As Derene sees it, "it was really a handful of people who created the movement, the ideas and the implementation. I think we paid the price for that as well, because when those people left, we didn't leave the infrastructure to maintain the progress.

Failures

Derene acknowledges that some people see the victims' movement as "this powerful monolithic,... almost demagogic movement." Yet despite the field's many successes, he doesn't think "we have galvanized the true grassroots broad-based understanding of victims' issues."

Greatest Accomplishment

Derene believes the establishment of the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) led to many of the field's accomplishments. In Derene's early years, NOVA offered him educational and networking opportunities. He doesn't think VOCA would have passed without NOVA's involvement.

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

Derene sees the growth and professionalism of the field directly tied to assuring the quality of victim services by providing quality training to service providers. He also sees the continued passage of victims' rights laws and the Federal constitutional amendment as a way of changing behaviors and the "cultural mindset" to recognize the need for and support services for crime victims.

"I think we need to get our act together in... some cohesive way to assure quality services to victims -- that virtually every dollar that goes out, 90 percent of every dollar that is used is for people."

Vision for the Future

Derene thinks of the field as being fairly young and headed in the right direction. He would like to see new ideas nourished in an effort to keep the future of the victim assistance field moving forward in a positive direction.

"I think we are on the right track. We are learning and growing. There are a lot of things that are maturing in this field. It is 20-30 years old, and so we are not even middle-aged yet, and I don't think we should get worried about it. But I think there is a lot of magic in the field and we need to continue that."

Greatest Fear

Derene's greatest fear is that all of the hard work that has been accomplished will be taken for granted. While we may be working toward a time when victim services and rights are "second nature", Derene isn't sure we will see that happen. He reflects on our efforts and believes, "It has been a good run and I guess in the social/political context, we need to maintain our interest and our focus on it."