An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Representative Bill Van Regenmorter
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Representative Bill Van Regenmorter
Interviewee:Bill Van Regenmorter;
Lansing, MI
Date of Interview:February 24, 2003
Location:Sacramento, CA

Representative Bill Van Regenmorter

Michigan House of Representatives




Biography

Representative Van Regenmorter began his legislative career in the Michigan Senate. As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he introduced numerous victims' rights legislation, including the Crime Victims' Rights Act. He has been named "Legislator of the Year" in Michigan eight times.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

In 1982 Bill Van Regenmorter was running for office in Michigan when he was approached by two victims. Both were widows whose husbands had been killed in drunk driving crashes. The man who killed them had a long record relative to driving under the influence. The two wives simply wanted to attend the trial, which was held some distance from where they both lived. Van Regenmorter reflects:

"And when they called the judge, the judge told them that this was none of their business, that a criminal matter in Michigan is...represented by the prosecuting attorney who represents the State of Michigan and the defendant, and the victims have no place there. So they called the prosecutor and the prosecutor a little more politely said the same thing. At the time, I was running for office and they approached me with their experience, and I thought, 'this is an absolutely inappropriate way to treat somebody who's been so victimized by a crime'. And so I made a pledge that I would start writing a Bill of Rights for crime victims in Michigan."

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

When Van Regenmorter began working on the Victims' Bill of Rights in 1983, he assumed that there would be a lot of information and materials for use. Instead, he found there to be very little. So, instead, he went everywhere he could to gain experience and information. He relied upon professionals in Michigan who had any connection whatsoever with victims. He remembers that at the time there was little positive reception for the concept of crime victims' rights. He found his first hurdle to be convincing people that there can be a "parallel track" in which rights are protected for criminals and granted for victims.

Greatest Challenge

Van Regenmorter remembers having to convince people that the movement could deliver as one of the greatest challenges in the early years. He recalls that people liked to talk about victims' rights; however, there was nothing in Michigan's law that gave any standing to victims in policy or in practice.

Successful Strategies

Throughout the course of his career, Van Regenmorter has found that implementation of victims' rights laws has been a real challenge. The law in Michigan says that "victims should have rights," not that they do, and translating that into action was not easy. Van Regenmorter determined that the professionals most likely to implement victims' rights at all levels would be the prosecutors, so the prosecutors were assigned the duty of implementation.

Failures

Van Regenmorter believes that the victim assistance field's failures have been informational failures. He also thinks that the field has failed victims to some degree because of the wide variation in rights and services afforded to crime victims in different states.

Greatest Accomplishment

Van Regenmorter believes that the victim assistance field's greatest success has been the victim impact statement process. He feels that the right for a victim to give an impact statement allows victims' voices to be heard in a very real and important way.

"And yes, restitution is important, but victims want the sense of justice that an impact statement gives."

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

Van Regenmorter believes it is important to recognize that there has always been a system in place, and that it is incredibly important to keep victims' rights as a viable issue that is progressing.

"It is a wonderful thing to do. It's a wonderful vocation or avocation, volunteer or full-time profession. Working with victims is extremely rewarding."

Vision for the Future

Van Regenmorter's vision for the future is that there will be comprehensive Crime Victims' Rights Act legislation in every state. He also envisions a Federal Constitutional Amendment that does not preempt what states have done, but rather builds off of state efforts.