An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Bill Schenck
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Bill Schenck
Interviewee:Bill Schenck;
Xenia, OH
Date of Interview:August 20, 2002
Location:Nashville, TN

Bill Schenck


Prosecuting Attorney, Greene County, Ohio




Biography

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

Bill Schenck graduated from law school in 1971 from The Ohio State University and began working at the prosecutor's office in Greene County, Ohio (where he has worked for the last 33 years). He reflects on one of his first assignments, a brutal rape case involving a young woman in her twenties. Schenck was handed her file two hours before the preliminary hearing and soon after met her for the first time. She was by herself in a hallway, sitting across from the four defendents who were heckling and taunting her. In the courtroom, Schenck remembers that the four defendents each had defense attorneys and "half a dozen cronies," while she was sitting alone at the table with him. The defense attorneys then proceeded to cross-examine the rape victim on the stand for six hours, asking her very personal questions. This initial exposure to how the criminal justice system treats victims convinced Schenck that the system needed to be changed.


Interview Summary

Context of the Era

Schenck remembers a system in which there were no laws to protect victims, nor were there systems in place to support them. Victims were intimidated; there were too many people involved in the courtroom and too many witnesses unwilling to come forward. There was a legal imbalance, and it was very difficult to "win" cases because of the nature of the system. The victim assistance field was nonexistent. The Greene County prosecutor's office then took matters into its own hands and devised a de facto witness program. As a part of this program, Schenck and then District Attorney Mike DeWine (who today serves in the U.S. Senate) would go to victims' homes and counsel them. These much-needed services filled a void.

Greatest Challenge

Schenck feels that the greatest challenge to victims' rights is inherent in the Federal Constitution. The rights spelled out for the accused and convicted have shaped what most people in this country have come to believe is just and necessary, so when individuals begin discussing balancing rights and procedural safeguards for witnesses and victims, there is naturally a fear that this will infringe on the rights of the accused. The victim assistance field needs to overcome this perception. He continues to articulate how this has adversely affected getting the public involved in the same way that other movements, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have.

Failures

Schenck believes that there have not been any total, outright failures, but that the victim assistance field has failed in a sense because it has not been able to enact a Federal constitutional amendment (although he prefers to view this more as a "work in progress"). He also identifies true enforcement of restitution as an area for improvement.

Greatest Accomplishment

Schenck credits the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA) as the field's greatest accomplishment because it gave much needed credibility to the issues. Schenck recounts how he testified in Congress in support of the Victims of Crime Act.

"The many, many states who have enacted through referendum or otherwise a constitutional Victim Bill of Rights or an amendment, if you will, as general as these amendments may be they certainly give stature and credibility to victims' issues and ultimately give some degree of legal standing."

He also feels that there have been many other non-legislative accomplishments such as increasing public awareness and, because of increased awareness, victims trust the system more and are more willing to report crimes.

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

Schenck identifies the importance of establishing a certification process for victim advocates in all 50 states. He also stresses the need for advocates to know and understand the history of the movement, its problems, and its political aspects, and believes that the field needs to make salaries competitive enough to attract the best and brightest. Schneck also stresses the importance of victim service professionals "honing their craft" to constantly improve the level of services available to victims of crime.

"You know, if you want to be good at raising children, you're gonna' have to work at it. If you want to be good at running the camera, you have to work at it. This doesn't just happen, you know. You don't just become a victim advocate and a successful one and make a difference just because you want to or have a heart to."

Vision for the Future

Schenck reflects:

"My vision would be a field that is truly, truly accepted as an equal, a real equal in criminal justice. A field that is truly professional, as professional as I want law enforcement to be, as I want judges to be, as I want prosecutors to be, as I want defense lawyers to be."

Greatest Fear

Schenck's greatest fear is that the same type of "backlash" that happened in regard to capital punishment could happen to the victims' rights movement. He is also concerned that in times of economic crisis, victim assistance programs will be among the first to be cut. He stresses the need to have specific interest groups to lobby legislatures, and the need to continue to bring in private money to support the victim assistance field.