An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
Video and Audio Archive
















Susan Hillenbrand
Interview Transcript

Picture from Susan Hillenbrand
How To Search This Transcript:
  • To search for a key word, depress the "Ctrl" and "F" keys simultaneously and a "Search" window will appear at the lower left of the screen.
  • To view the video which corresponds to a particular paragraph in the transcript, just "click" anywhere within that paragraph and a video player will pop up on the screen.
  • For a more detailed description of the "Search" function Search Tips. or For additional details regarding the transcripts and/or video player try Frequently Asked Questions.

Interview Transcript



timecode Beatty: Susan Hillenbrand, could you start by telling us your name and spelling it for us and telling us what your current position is?

timecode Hillenbrand: My name is Susan Hillenbrand and it's spelled, S-U-S-A-N, H-I-L-L-E-N-B-R-A-N-D. I am currently the Standards Project Director for the American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section.

timecode Beatty: Great. Well we want to start with a very general question, that being how did you first get involved in the criminal victims' field or criminal victims' movement?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well I can't say I got involved for any very noble reason particularly. I had been working at the American Bar Association for a number of years but had left and was working on something else. The ABA got a grant from the old LEAA to do a project on Bar leadership for victim witness assistance and asked me to come back to work on that project and I did and that started a long affiliation with the victims' movement.

timecode Beatty: Well could you tell us a little about what was the nature of that very first project and who did you work with and what was its purpose and intentions?

timecode Hillenbrand: The purpose of that project was just to get Bar Associations and lawyers to recognize that victims do have an interest in what goes on in the criminal justice system. You know, as you know, the criminal justice system likes to think of itself as the defense and the prosecution and there are some judges in there but, you know, that's kind of it and what we wanted to do in this project was really to raise the awareness of the lawyers in the system that there are victims and that really, that was the original purpose of the criminal justice system to, for public safety and that, they needed to keep that in mind.

timecode Beatty: Okay and how did you do that? Was it intended as a educational project where you bring people in and sort of train them or were you developing curriculum or what was the... ?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well at that point what we were really doing was just developing a publication for distribution to the State and Local Bar Associations around the country. We didn't really follow up at that point with much. There was some follow up. At the time Mike McCann, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, was Chair of our Victims' Committee at the ABA and, of course, that right there gave us a lot of impact because, Michael is so well respected around the country and he had a victim witness program and he liked his victim witness program and so that was helpful to us.

timecode Beatty: Susan, I've been interested to know how the states use the material that you sent them. Did you get feedback on how it was being used and what kind of response it was getting?

timecode Hillenbrand: We did get feedback. We tried to get feedback from the State and Local Bars about what they were doing to follow up. We did get word from a number of State and Local Bars that they were setting up victim witness programs. That was one of the recommendations in our... in our booklet. They, it was interesting because, and we had left it open to them to do what they wanted to do, what we were really interested in, was to raise their consciousness and get them to doing something. So some of them set up programs for domestic violence, for counseling domestic violence -- on their legal issues, not so much on their social science issues necessarily or social issues. Some of them worked to help victims get compensation. Some of them worked on the restitution area. Some of them worked on their State guidelines for their treatment of victims and witnesses. So there was a fair amount of activity. I can't say it was overwhelming. It wasn't actually what we had wanted but it was certainly a start.

timecode Beatty: This is great. Now I'm curious to know, not everyone is familiar, with the American Bar Association and how it sort of links with Local Bars. Could you spend just a minute or two sort of telling us about the organization and then sort of how it links in with this issue?

timecode Hillenbrand: Sure. Well the American Bar Association is the National Organization that represents attorneys. It's a volunteer membership organization. It's the largest professional volunteer organization in the world. There are over 300, somewhere between 350,000, 400,000 attorneys who belong. There is no requirement that they belong, so the attorneys who do belong are there because they want to be there and, of course, they're there for a lot of different reasons. The Criminal Justice Section is just one of many sections of the ABA which has about 8,500 members and our members, we like to think of ourselves as an umbrella organization. We represent prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law professors and others who work in the criminal justice system. We have some police and some correctional officials and people like that. There are a number of other organizations that represent one segment of the Criminal Justice Section, you know, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National District Attorneys Association. What we think the ABA contributes to this is when we come out with policies, they are policies that have kind of been vetted through the various participants in the criminal justice section and they seem to have some prestige because of that.

timecode Beatty: Okay. You... you mentioned that the ABA, and I think the Criminal Justice Section, actually has a Victim Committee. Could you tell me a little bit about how that came about and you said that Prosecutor McCann was one of the leaders and...

timecode Hillenbrand: Well I think, I can't tell you for certain because I wasn't there at the time that it was formed, but I'm quite certain that Michael McCann probably had a lot of say in the development, in the setting up of the Committee in the first place. The Committee's still in existence. It's been very active at certain times and not very active at other times. We're trying to get it a little more active again now but we've been involved in a lot of different things. The Committee is a committee of the Criminal Justice Section and it has overseen a lot of the projects that we've done throughout the years. Now, and some of those projects have been research projects and some of them have been more policy development projects. But we always have a committee made up of, again we try in our committees to also have umbrella representation so on our Victims Committee we have prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and academics usually.

timecode Beatty: Okay. I know that the ABA was responsible and you said this is one of its mandates is to kind of create models that states or systems can adopt. Can you share with us just a couple of examples that you were just mentioning of sort the model programs that the ABA has developed in our arena for crime victims? I know that there was a model led, a model Bill of Rights I think at one point, there was some stalking legislation that you worked on...

timecode Hillenbrand: Right. The model...they're not model programs so much as they are models for, generally legislation, but also practice within an office. And I guess as far as victims goes we've had several major ones and I guess the really major one would be our development of the Guidelines for Fair Treatment of Crime Victims and Witnesses in 1986 and, in that we tried to go through the process... the criminal justice process from start to finish to see where the victim had an interest and how that interest could be addressed. Um, and we came out with a set of guidelines that we disseminated fairly widely and I think they were used a lot by the States in developing their guidelines for victims.

timecode Beatty: When you started into that project and I know you were instrumental in actually doing the research and development and the content of that. Did you find that there were things out there that you could borrow from or did, were you actually creating things sort of from whole cloth for the first time as you developed those model standards?

timecode Hillenbrand: I don't think that we developed them from whole cloth but what we did do was look and see what was out there. Before we developed these guidelines, we had done a survey of each state legislatively at least to see what was on the books and, in various states and some states had some things, others had others. What we tried to do was kind of pull this together to see what it would be like as a overall set of guidelines for the states. So, I guess what we did was kind of try to pick what we thought were the best practices if that's the term everybody uses these days. Um, but I guess in this case it was more like best policies and put them together in those guidelines.

timecode Beatty: Let me use that as a segue to my next question. We're very interested to see the evolution of the movement. So I'd be curious to know how you think the victims' field, both in terms of rights and services, have evolved since 30 years ago when you really-- well the field got started and when your work started shortly thereafter. Could you give just a little historical perspective on how things have changed since the time you were doing that initial work?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, I should start off by saying I'm not as familiar with the social services... the services as I am with the legal evolution but I think there's no doubt that there are so many things going on today that were so novel when we started this movement. I remember in 1980 I went to the National Organization for Victim Assistance meeting in Portland, Oregon and I was just amazed to see all the things that were going on but they were at the time pretty unique. I mean, it wasn't like everybody was saying oh, we do that or, you know... and I think now there are a lot more generally accepted services, rights that people don't think are so novel any more because they're not. They've been in place for 20, 30 years...20 years I guess.

timecode Beatty: I'm curious to know and particularly and again you can speak to the rights issue if that's where you're most comfortable. But what would you say were the biggest challenges in terms of either drafting the legislation or these policies and then secondarily sort of getting them implemented and you kind of referenced that a couple times in, in your statements already but can you give us a little more perspective about the challenges that you were facing with regard to policy development?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, I think from my perspective, one of the biggest challenges was to address the real needs of victims in a non-threatening way to the, particularly the defense community but we're also talking about the prosecution community and the judicial community. Um, for some reason victims are a threat sometimes to people in this system and sometimes there are good reasons for that. I mean each participant in the system has their job and their clients, if you will, to protect, so they have a reason to do what they do, but what we were trying to do was to say, "But there's another piece of this that you need to look at." So I guess one of our challenges was to present that in a non-threatening way and in a way that would not interfere, seem to interfere with their doing their job.

timecode Beatty: Okay and I, well earlier you said to get a little more into more details on that because I think those sorts of attitudes have been challenges for the field generally. I'd be curious to know um, how did you go about sort of convincing them that this either wasn't a threat or this might, even was a positive thing? What were the sort of the secret inside strategies or ways in which you were sort of able to sort of overcome that reticence from the various quarters at the Bar Association?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well I think one way is to get people who are well respected by the field to work on your behalf. And as I say, you know, Michael McCann was our number one person back in the early days and that lent a lot of credibility. I think we also had to point out, to a certain extent, what injecting victims' interest into the system did not do, you know. It did not necessarily, or it did not adversely affect defendants' rights. We weren't trying to do that. I think, and this is probably particularly true in the legal community, not to get overly emotional about issues and even for an adversarial system, not to be too adversarial but to be rational and to point out why, I think a lot of people just don't think about the victim. They would rather just not think about the victim but if the victim can be presented as a person with needs and concerns and not as somehow trying to thwart what the criminal justice system is trying to do I think it's a lot more acceptable. (Change of tape)

timecode Beatty: Sounds like one of the things that you were describing in terms of this change of revolution within the Bar Association and its members was a change in attitudes. And I'd be interested to hear from your perspective about how you feel like the attitudes of prosecutors or others in the system have changed and maybe why as things have evolved in our field.

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, as far as prosecutors are concerned, I think a lot of their attitudes have evolved because they have realized having victim witnesses in their office is a great thing. I think it not only probably doesn't cause them any more work or any, put any more obstacles in their way, it probably smoothes the way. So I think as far as prosecutors are concerned generally, not totally because I do know some prosecutors who are still quite anti-victim actually. But on the whole, I think prosecutors really have recognized not only the legitimate rights of victims and their legitimate concern for those concerns. I think they've realized it's a good thing for them. I think defense attorneys are still very wary of victims in the system. I guess a lot of them have come to accept that there's going to be a victim impact statement at sentencing, but earlier on in the process they aren't too interested in having victims involved. And again, you know, I mean, they have some reasons. They're defending a person who has, is con, to be considered innocent until proven guilty and in fact some of them are innocent.

timecode And we have, I think the victims' movement has to remember that, that there was a reason that we consider, there... there was a reason that defendant's have rights and that's because they are considered innocent until they're proven guilty and some of them are in fact innocent. And no matter how injured the victim is, it doesn't justify convicting the wrong person. So I think that's something from the victim's perspective, the movement needs to keep in mind and to make others in the system aware of their awareness of that.

timecode Beatty: You've been mentioning victims' rights and I thought it might be useful, particularly with someone with your background and expertise and the amount of research you've done, to maybe share uh, some examples of some specific rights and how they sort of have evolved and played out in your work.

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, in think... thinking just going through the guidelines for fair treatment uh, you have the right to notification. I mean this was a big thing at one time. It seems kind of incredible now, but this was a big thing to let the victim know when the case was going to come to trial. That certainly doesn't impact an adversely on the defendant. So, you know, the notification rights, the information rights to provide victims with information that's going on, a major right from the victim's perspective is consultation with the prosecutor. And I think that, this is again an area where it only makes sense from the prosecutor's perspective to consult with the victim uh, before moving forth on the case. It's consultation, it's not the victims are not making decisions. It doesn't the prosecutor can't make decision. As a matter of fact the prosecutor is the one who's supposed to be making decisions about how the case is going to go forth. But he... he needs, he or she needs that input from the victim. The victim impact statement, of course, is critical with the sentencing stage.

timecode This is when we're not talking about an innocent person at this point. The person has been convicted. And so victim impact statements are very important. Those are just a few of the victim's interest. I was mentioning to you earlier, I think about some of the areas that the American Bar Association has brought the victim into the system. I currently as I mentioned, am Project Director for our Criminal Justice Standards Project, the Standards Project developed standards for prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges in the system dealing in criminal cases. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 volumes of standards, starting with, I guess with pre-trial release through sentencing or appeal of sentencing. These volumes are constantly being updated. And we have been successful in getting victims into a number of these volumes. They're now in the pleas of guilty standards, the prosecution function standards, the sentencing standards, the new pre-trial release standards.

timecode All of these are now addressing in one fashion or another some concerns and interests of victims and advocating dealing with those. But, you know, things are not uh, some... sometimes just when you think things are moving along smoothly, they're not as smooth as you might think. We were considering at our criminal justice section counsel just this past weekend, some new standards or some revised standards on speedy trial. And we were trying to expand these standards beyond the defendant's right to a speedy trial to the public's interest. That the public also has an interest in speedy uh, disposition of cases doesn't mean it trumps the defendant's right to a speedy trial, but it does mean that there is a public interest, that these things can't drive on forever and ever and ever. And as kind of a subset of that the particular victim has a real interest in getting the case over with. If there's no legitimate right for the defense to keep spreading this thing out--as somebody was saying vic, defendants, a lot of defendants now are not interested in a speedy trial, they're more interested in an extended trial.

timecode And if that is the case then that's the purpose of their constant, continuous request. Then at some point somebody has to say, "Wait a minute. There is another interest in it. It's the victim's interest." But that didn't go over terribly well I have to say. At least as far as singling victims out uh, you know, the thought was, "Well, they're part of the public so we'll just kind of stick them back in the public." I don't know what's going to happen with that. At this point it's still up in the air, but it's just an example of just when you think things are (interruption).

timecode Beatty: What would perceive as one of the greatest accomplishments that you either participated in or that you observed with regard to victims and sort of the establishment in protection of their rights?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, I think just overall as far as victim services, which I think are probably the best thing that's happened in the victims' movement I think the, obviously the dedication of all the people who work with individual victims, but I think the mobilization of those individuals by groups such as the National Organization of Victim Assistance and the National Victim Center and of course, then the more specific, the domestic violence groups and those sorts of things. I think the mobilization of all that has been very important. Again I think that what happens sometimes when you get very strong is that then you become again, more threatening. So, you know, I guess that's the downside, but I certainly wouldn't advocate not being strong victim groups because of that.

timecode Beatty: Well, one of the things I'm particularly interested in asking you about is if you have sort of witnessed the evolution of ...sort of the establishment of statutory rights for crime victims, in many cases setting models and standards for the, that legislation. I'd be curious to know how you've seen that evolve and you know, they are playing out today in practice in terms of implementation. Do you have thoughts on that?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, I think as far as getting things on the books, I mean there's definitely a lot on the books these days for victims that just wasn't there 20 years ago. I think as far as its implementation, it's still very spotty and it's spotty not only state to state, but jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And of course a lot of that, particularly with respect to the services, has to do with money of course. But I think there's also some when you have people who are really interested in it, things tend to get done. And when the interest isn't there, it's not going to get done. So, I think there has been a lot of evolution, definitely, definitely.

timecode Beatty: What would you say is the cause of some of that spottiness in terms of your... your saying someone, when somebody's motivated. Is it because they're personally motivated or because there's an outside force that's getting them motivated to implement a ride or, you know, what is, what's driving either the fact that it happens or it doesn't happen?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, I think outside pressure doesn't hurt, but unless, if it's pressure that can actually change somebody's way of thinking, it's going to have long-lasting implications. If it's just pressure to get through the next election, it's not going to have lasted or not necessarily anyway and probably not going to have lasting impact. And it's not going to have real the dedication that you need to really make things work if you don't change the mindset. And...

timecode Beatty: Well, I've asked you about sort of successes and accomplishments. I'd be interested to know what you see as one of the greatest failures of the movement to this date or the greatest challenges that re, that remains unmet by our field?

timecode Hillenbrand: I can't think of any failures really. And I guess it depends on what aspect you're looking at. I mean I think that it's always moved forward somewhat, not in the speed we... we'd like it to. But I, again I think the challenges and I know that you know this having worked in it with victims--people in general don't like to think about victims that much because they don't want to be a victim. And if they're not a victim then they think there's a reason they're not a victim and there's a reason that somebody else is a victim and let them take care of it, kind of. I don't quite know why that is. I mean if we read the newspapers or look at our friends or we... we're all potential victims. And so I think what the movement needs to do is make everybody, including our politicians and our criminal justice people, understand that. And deal with that, not that these people are looking for handouts or they're looking for vengeance. I mean there are always going to be the few that you wish would disappear into the woodwork because they're not good for what you're trying to do, but that's not gonna happen either, so.

timecode Beatty: Good. Well, I have another sort of general question here that has to do with professionalism in the field. I'd be curious to know whether you had any thoughts about, you know, what we could do today to sort of continue the growth and professionalism of our field. How do we sort of raise those standards in the work that we're doing in this field?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, I guess one thing would be to make the public aware of what is going on in the field. Again, I'm not sure that the general public is very aware of the victims' movement and what the services that are provided to victims actually do. I guess I would say more publicity about the victims' successes and what is needed in terms of our politicians and policies I guess that would be my...

timecode Beatty: If you could give some advice to someone who was just coming to our field, regardless whether they're a service provider or potential policy leader or whatever. Given your perspective and your experience, what advice would you give to someone who's just now entering into this field in whatever service capacity might do that?

timecode Hillenbrand: Well, I guess I would, my first advice would be to talk to some victims and to get their perspective on how they're treated in the system. And I think this would be important to talk to victims who've been through the system and maybe some victims who haven't been through the system yet to see what they're ...what they're anticipating and what they're wanting from the system. But I think anybody who works in the field needs to have some grounding even they're not going to be dealing specifically with victims. And then I think they have to look at all the players in the system and see what the concerns of all of those players are. And to really take them into account and not brush them off and try to work out--our big word at the ABA is a "consensus." There's never going to be a total consensus perhaps, but there are a lot of issues that there isn't really a theoretical problem. But a lot of times the discussion gets cut off before the issue's totally discussed. So I guess what I would just say is be aware that uh, you think you're working for victims and you think that's an apple pie issue.

timecode There are a lot of other issues and you have to know what you're dealing with. And you should realize that the other people in the system, like the defense attorneys are working for something that they truly believe, also. And it's not us against them. It shouldn't be us against them. It should be "let's see how we can work together to work this out."

timecode Beatty: What would you say is your greatest fear for the field? What challenges do we have that concern you the most in terms of our continuing growth and potential success?

timecode Hillenbrand: Boy, that's kind of a hard one. I think as long as there are dedicated people on the front lines, the movement will survive. But it needs to go on the system up, we need to keep everybody-- the policymakers, the legislators, judges, defense attorneys, constantly aware of victims. That you know, this isn't something that they necessarily think is high on their priority list but I guess just maintaining the momentum or increasing the momentum is vital. I think it would be very dangerous to kind of sit on laurels. And I don't know, things like, you know, the Constitutional Amendment that can play either way, depending on how it's presented. I don't quite know what else to say about my fears, but I guess my biggest fear is that it's going to be a victims against the system and I don't know that that would in the end work to the victims' advantage.

timecode Beatty: Then I have one sort of final question. This is very open-ended but what would you say would be your vision for the future of the field? Where should we be going and what sort of goals, objectives, what would we look like in the future if in your own personal view, what would be success for our continued evolution?

timecode Hillenbrand: Boy, David, you ask hard questions. (Laughter) Well, more, more of the sa, I guess more and better of the same. I think one thing I haven't mentioned I think I would like to see is more involvement at the law-student stage, to get people thinking about this early on in their careers. But I guess I would like to see the victims' movement as a, an integrated part of the criminal justice system that does not have to be fought each time a case cames, comes up, but that it would be a recognized and respected concern of the criminal justice system.

timecode Beatty: Great. Well, that is actually all my questions. Is there anything that you would like to just offer to, as part of our little historical record here, observations, thoughts, comments, anything?

timecode Hillenbrand: I can't really think of anything that we haven't covered in one sense or another.

timecode Beatty: Great. Well, thank you, Susan Hillenbrand.

timecode Hillenbrand: Thank you, David Beatty.