An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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David Osborne
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Interview Transcript

timecode Seymour: Dave Osborne, thank you for joining the OVC Oral History Project today. I want to ask you if you don't mind, for the record start out by saying and spelling your name, please.

timecode Osborne: Sure, my name is David Osborne. D-A-V-I-D, O-S-B-O-R-N-E.

timecode Seymour: Great. Dave, how did you and why did you first get involved in the crime victims' movement or in any way working with crime victims?

timecode Osborne: It was purely political accident. I had been staffing a Presidential Commission during the first year of the Clinton Administration looking at the drug problem from the state and local prospective. I had been a researcher at the Kennedy School and that was my area of... of expertise and was getting ready to go back to my research at the Kennedy School when I was invited to interview for an appointment at the Justice Department. And what I thought I was interviewing for was a position at the Bureau of Justice Assistance which would have made sense since I had background in that. I'd been a BJA grantee and such and that's what I thought I was interviewing for and when I got the call probably six months later saying, "Congratulations, we'd like to appoint you to a position at the Justice Department." Instead of saying BJA or NIJ perhaps, they said "the Office of Victims of Crime." And I kind of took a deep breath and thought, "I have no idea what that is, but it sounds interesting. Okay, we'll do it." And that's how I arrived in the victims' movement.

timecode Seymour: And when you went to OVC, what was your, I know you had many roles-- what were your most significant roles there?

timecode Osborne: I was officially, I was a Special Assistant to the Director and that essentially entailed a lot of spear-catching, problem-solving, crisis management. It was a lot of Jack-of-all-trades kind of things. I did manage a few projects, the development of a crises response program at the Justice Department, for example, a technology grant, looking at different ways to increase the use of technology within the victims' field. But as much as anything it was sort of day-to-day problem-solving and kind of managing the work of the Department, of the Office.

timecode Seymour: What was the field like that was, if that were ten years ago, what was the field like in terms of how victims' rights and services were... were I think being provided, but also a little bit of the context of the early '90s in victim assistance?

timecode Osborne: It was a field that was on the brink of many things and nothing necessarily catalyzing any movement forward. The... the field had been relatively well-established by that point at, certainly at the Justice Department and within the criminal justice system through the passage of VOCA, you know, almost ten years prior to that. So the grants-making process was kind of all ironed out and that proceeded regularly, which was important. But at the same time fine collections had become stagnant by that point and so there's a leveling off of revenue coming into the program to assist crime victims' programs. There was interest in victims' rights, but nothing necessarily, you know, pushing that agenda forward, but at the same time there were these tremendous opportunities. We had a new Administration in Washington so that brings new ideas. We had a... a new Attorney General, Janet Reno who is obviously very committed to crime victims' issues. And it was something that she felt very passionate about.

timecode And right after we had sort of arrived on the scene, or at least I arrived in February of '94, that summer and into the fall we worked on the passage of the... the, on the best crime act, the '94 Crime Act, which among other things had numerous provisions for the Violence Against Women Act. It had funding for all sorts of victims' kinds of programs. We did some more amendments to VOCA at the time and that really set a number of things in place. Another important thing was that they, in '94, made the appointments to all of the director positions within the Office of Justice Programs at the Justice Department which meant in October of '94, the arrival of Aileen Adams. And what she brought to the scene is incredible energy and drive that among other things focused really on fine collection. You know, it's one thing to have an ability under the law to collect the fines and collect them into a Crime Victims' Fund. It's another to get prosecutors, U.S. Attorneys' Offices, the whole Correction system to actually collect them. And one of her first missions and one of the things that we focused on very early on was during all kinds of meetings, briefings with the U.S. Attorney's Office, in particular to just remind them the fines that you collect are collected into the Crime Victims' Fund.

timecode And if you don't ask for those funds, the judges aren't gonna order them necessarily on the natural. And these fines are helping to support victims' programs. And then that led to a very steady, but demonstrable increase in fine collection, but then not only provided more funding to the field, but also provided more funding to OVC to then take a leadership role in providing more training opportunities to the field that, to... to do more outreach on victims' rights, to do more, you know, collaborative work with the various professionals and allied professionals that work with crime victims. And then that led to everything.

timecode Seymour: You preceded Aileen.

timecode Osborne: By six months.

timecode Seymour: Didn't realize that. Uh, looking at being at OVC what... what do you think some of the... the challenges that you and your colleagues faced in OVC or in the field at that time in terms of affecting change?

timecode Osborne: OVC is part of the Justice Department, but not necessarily part of the Justice Department. And by that I mean that prosecutors have always had a certain way of prosecuting criminal cases, you know, both within the department as well as the kinds of guide inset the department gives to its prosecutors, both within the federal system as well as what the locals and the state prosecutors follow. And OVC is kind of the red-haired stepchild as a part of that. And so one of the main things that we had to get through is "how do you work with, and in some instances work around, the justice system as it currently was uh, yet buy off from the right people?" And sometimes it was everybody along the way saying "no" until you got to Janet Reno and then she says "yes." And then that changes things. Uh, part of it was trying to figure out how to get the justice system to do what the justice system was supposed to do in terms of crime victims.

timecode Seymour: Any tactics or strategies that you folks employed that were particularly successful? I know you've really talked about really having access to Janet Reno. Anything that just worked?

timecode Osborne: We believe very strongly in partnerships. You know, we know that we can't do it by ourselves and so we did everything we could to align ourselves and work closely with major crime victims' organizations, to work with organizations of allied professionals, whether it was police organizations, prosecutorial and, you know, district attorneys' associations, judicial councils, corrections officials, to see where we had areas of common interest to remind them what their responsibilities were and how we could help them. You know, sometimes it took just a little bit of conversation and then a little bit of seed money to get their attention or at least to bring them to the table, but then that allowed us to work in partnership and then buy them into the process. One thing that we really focus very hard on when we were at OVC was making sure that the major crime victims' organizations had stable sources of funding from the federal government, so that not only were they able to help us with the kinds of things that we wanted help with, you know, promoting victims' rights, promoting training opportunities and advancing the field in that regard...

timecode ...but it's much easier to do when you're not trying to struggle from week to week, month to month to make the payroll. And so we looked for opportunities where we can ensure that everybody got a piece of funding so that they didn't have to worry about that, so that we could worry about the big picture issues that were facing the field.

timecode Seymour: What are some of these national orders, can you just name a few of them?

timecode Osborne: National Organization for Victim Assistance, the National Victim Center which is now the National Center for Victims of Crime, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example, DV and Sexual Assault Coalitions. You know, all of them play such a vital role in helping crime victims and then also helping the legislative advocacy and, you know, the push for victims' rights, but they can't do it. It's... it's one thing to bring good ideas to the table. It's another thing to bring labor or money to the table and we help to do that.

timecode Seymour: Any failures that you can point to either in your tenure there or else in the field as a whole 'cause I know you're very familiar with the thirty-year history of the field?

timecode Osborne: Well one area I think that, I... I don't necessarily see them as failures. We're just not there yet. It's still a young field as far as I'm concerned but I, we have now made a transformation from what I see as a social movement to an actual field. It, you know, victim advocacy now is a professional discipline and that's a good development, but there are areas where I think we're not there yet. One area is providing services to people of color and people in low-income communities. For example, we've done great work, domestic violence, sexual assault, some mainstream issues that kind of hit mainstream people, but I'm not convinced for example that we have developed a fail and comprehensive victim assistance network in... in low-income communities, for example, and communities of color, reaching out to communities of color in particular. We haven't enacted yet a Crime Victims' Constitutional Amendment. We're getting there. We're working hard on it. We're not there yet.

timecode So it's areas of continued work. Another thing is... is providing stable funding source. You know we still have, we have VOCA in place. We have the Crime Victims' Fund in place but, we fought like the devil the years that we were at OVC. When I say "we" it'sAileen Adams and myself, to ensure that there were no raids on the fund 'cause our feeling was even if it were organizations that had some nexus with victim services that plausibly could've been funded out of the Crime Victims' Fund, we didn't want to let them in. Because once you let one in, then the earmarks start to come, caps starts to be put in place. And we fought, fought, fought, fought to keep that from happening during our time there. And we've now seen a cap placed on the Crime Victims' Fund when there's so much need that still could be met with the amount of revenue that's coming into the Fund that we're not meeting because the funds aren't being released.

timecode Seymour: If you had to pick one greatest accomplishment for the field that has really promoted victims' rights and needs, what do you think that would be?

timecode Osborne: I still think you have to look back to VOCA. Just having a stable funding base that victim service programs, that state programs, state compensation programs can rely upon from year to year to support what they're doing is the most important thing because that's where the services are being provided. That's how we're building a professionalized victim advocacy workforce. And without that none of this is really possible.

timecode Seymour: The... the original VOCA legislation also contributed to the development of the Office for Victims of Crime where you mistakenly went, thinking you were going to... to BJA. What... what have you seen, what do you perceive to be OVC's role in all of this?

timecode Osborne: OVC has a huge leadership role that it could provide to the country. And it, part of it again is OVC brings the dollars to the table. I mean there's three real important ways that you contribute to something. And one is to bring money to the table. One is to bring good ideas. One is to bring human labor, just capital. You need people to actually do the work. And... and OVC has the wherewithal to bring leadership -- good ideas that can help victim service providers do their jobs better. It has the funding that could help support the work, and that's a huge role that OVC has and continues to play.

timecode Seymour: And for people who are newer to our field, David, whether they're professionals or volunteers, who may not be aware of the thirty-one years of this field in... in all that's occurred since then, what... what advice would you give to the baby buffaloes?

timecode Osborne: They've gotta persevere. Perseverance more than anything else will continue to move us forward. It... it's a hard line of work. I mean you're seeing and dealing with the worst that humanity sometimes has to offer and so in perseverance it's everything. So, at a personal level being able to take these horrible things that are happening to crime victims and use that in a way that you're supporting them, providing them with the services that they need, but not getting burned by it yourself so that you can turn around tomorrow and help more people who are similarly situated. It's perseverance knowing that we are still in many ways on the outside of the crime victim, the criminal justice system and looking in and will be for the foreseeable future, although we continue to put our foot in the door. We continue to make inroads in terms of rights and services, we're still not there yet.

timecode And so there will be setbacks, as a result of that. So the perseverance also is on the political front. We have to keep fighting for the things that we believe in to keep pushing the agenda forward. And so perseverance is really what it comes down to.

timecode Seymour: I'm gonna just follow up on that. When you talk about being outside of the criminal justice system and earlier you talked about the Federal Constitutional Amendment and then now you're talking perseverance. Where does that all mush together?

timecode Osborne: I'm not sure I...

timecode Seymour: Oh, the Federal Amendment, I mean it's, I think it was 1986 is when we started thinking about it and it's 2003. What's it gonna take, do you think, to really pass a Federal Constitutional Amendment for victims?

timecode Osborne: As a field I'm not sure we have figured out quite how to articulate the need for a Constitutional Amendment. There's always gonna be much more resistance in amending the Constitution than any other political endeavor that we would face. And, you know, what, the pushback that we're gonna get is along the lines of the same things that, you know, the women's movement heard, you know, back in the 1910s and 1920s when they were advocating for suffrage. It's the same thing that the Civil Rights Movement heard in the '50s and '60s which is, you know, there's plenty of laws on the books that will, you know, aid you. You know, why now? Why are pushing for this? You know, why do you need any further rights? You have all the rights that you need. We just need to enforce what you have. But the reality is, is that sometimes that's not enough and if we follow that line of thinking and just should avoid amending the Constitution just because it's hard then, you know, we would still have slavery. We would, only whites above the age of twenty-one would be allowed to vote and people wouldn't be able to participate in important government functions that... that affect them.

timecode But I don't think as a field we have yet articulated in a way that most Americans can understand why, you know, the Constitution, this, you know, the founding blueprint of the country needs to be changed to help this one particular group. I don't think we've articulated the broad impact that crime has both on individuals as well as on our society. I'm not sure that we have articulated the need for a victims' amendment in a way that gets the practitioners who are gonna help us get this enacted, to support us. We don't have the lawyers with us. We don't have the judges with us. And so when we're talking about changing the ultimate law of the country, we need them. We need to get the, and I hate to say it as a, you know, a liberal Democrat, we need to get the Dems aboard and the Democratic leadership isn't quite aboard. Uh, you know, I understand that they have their own concerns, but we haven't gotten them there. So there's a... there's a marketing campaign that we have yet to fully engage, but that doesn't mean that we can't and won't continue to move in that direction.

timecode Seymour: What's your vision for our field, Dave?

timecode Osborne: I think it is continuing the progress that we have made and building on that in a way that will continue to enable us to help serve victims better. And, you know, Toni Morrison, once likened progress to the slow walk of trees, she did a, an essay on the two hundredth birthday of the United States talking about, you know, where we were in terms of Civil Rights and the rights of African-Americans. And she likened it to a slow walk of trees and the analogy and the metaphor that she was using is just as you can track the slow progress of trees from the Savannahs up into the highlands, so, too, you can track the slow progress of social movements. And that's where we are with the victims' deal. You know, it is a slow process. Thirty-one years, we have accomplished a great deal. We're not there yet, but we'll get there.

timecode Seymour: And do you have any fears or... or... or do you have a greatest fear for the future of our field?

timecode Osborne: I think the greatest fear is that we will plateau and this is where, you know, as good as it will get. You know, at some point you worry will the funding meet the need? Will the will to actually change and get the rights that truly are going to make a difference and implement the rights that are truly going to make a difference in people's lives actually come to pass. And so my fear is that we won't professionalize the field in such a way that we not only build upon the progress that we've made, but we keep progressing and we actually move forward, you know, beyond where we are right now. So that's the fear.

timecode Seymour: Anything I didn't ask you, Dave, or any final thoughts that you'd like to add?

timecode Osborne: I don't think so.