Suzanne Estrella testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Sept. 2019.
An attorney who has spent decades representing domestic violence victims could be the state’s next appointed Victim Advocate, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office announced Tuesday.
If she wins two-thirds confirmation by the state Senate, Philadelphia native Suzanne Estrella would be the first Black woman to lead the Office of the Victim Advocate, which was created in 1995 as part of a tough-on-crime wave of legislation in statehouses.
Estrella would replace former state victim advocate Jennifer Storm, who departed in January following an ugly and ultimately unsuccessful reconfirmation battle.
Like Storm, Estrella has spent her career working with survivors of sexual and domestic violence. She most recently served as legal director for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, where she spearheaded efforts to offer legal assistance to victims of sexual abuse, harassment and assault, Wolf’s office said in a statement.
“Suzanne Estrella is a dedicated public servant who has spent most of her career advocating on behalf of victims and survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse,” Wolf said in the statement. “Suzanne’s background and passion provide a solid foundation to lead the Office of Victim Advocate on behalf of all of Pennsylvania’s crime victims.”
As state Victim Advocate, Estrella would lead an office that oversees services for crime victims across Pennsylvania. That includes a crime victim notification system, which alerts victims when their perpetrator has a court hearing or is up for release, as well as a network of county-level victim service offices.
The Victim Advocate also serves as the voice of registered crime victims in the state Capitol, weighing on legislation that affects criminal sentencing and civil protections.
During her six years as victim advocate, Storm lobbied in favor of reforms for clergy sex abuse victims and against proposals granting parole eligibility to thousands of Pennsylvanians convicted on felony murder charges.
That advocacy landed Storm in the crosshairs of lawmakers from both political parties, as well as from advocates who said her support for harsh sentencing perpetuated mass incarceration.
Wolf nominated Storm to serve another six-year term as victim advocate after her first appointment expired in 2019. Members of the Senate shot down her reconfirmation bid in November, in what Storm said was a political hit job engineered by outgoing Senate president pro tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, in retaliation for her advocacy on behalf of clergy sex abuse victims.
Senate Republicans called on Wolf to appoint a licensed attorney to fill Storm’s spot. Criminal justice advocates, meanwhile, urged him to appoint someone who would advocate for victims of gun violence and who would prioritize restorative justice programs over punitive sentencing laws.
One of those advocates told the Capital-Star Tuesday that he wasn’t familiar with Estrella, but that his hopes for the next Victim Advocate hadn’t changed.
“We hope that the next victim advocate can hold the complexity that many of the same families who have been harmed by violence also have loved ones who are incarcerated,” Sean Damon, organizing director of the Philadelphia-based Amistad Law Project, said in an email. “And we hope that the next victim advocate foregrounds the role of rehabilitation and second chances so that our communities can heal together.”
If confirmed as Victim Advocate, Estrella said in a statement that she looks forward “to collaborating with local community victim service providers [and] addressing the complexity of victimization prevalent in our communities.”
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