Who should speak for crime victims in Pennsylvania? The move to oust the state victim advocate, explained

Jennifer Storm speaks during a House hearing on Marsy's Law in 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso).

Pennsylvania’s state Capitol was consumed by fervent activism for much of the fall in 2018, as survivors of clergy sex abuse appealed to lawmakers in rallies, press conferences, and demonstrations to make it easier for them to sue perpetrators in years-old abuse cases.

One of the loudest voices belonged to Jennifer Storm, the state’s appointed victim advocate.

Since 2013, Storm has directed an office that commands a $3.5 million budget to administer services for crime victims and their families.

The Office of the Victim Advocate, created in 1995 during a wave of tough-on-crime lawmaking, oversees restorative justice programs, a network of county-level offices, and a notification system that tells victims when a perpetrator will appear in court or become eligible for release.

It also represents the voice of crime victims in the state Legislature, offering testimony and lobbying lawmakers on bills that affect crime victims.

Gov. Tom Wolf nominated Storm this year to lead the office for a second, six-year term.

But her reconfirmation hit a snag early this month, when the Senate voted by a razor-thin margin to approve legislation that would render her ineligible for her post.

A proposal sponsored by Sens. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, amends the state’s Crime Victim Act to require the appointed victim advocate to be a licensed attorney – a credential Storm lacks. It passed on a vote of 26-24.

The move was the most public emergence yet of a debate, running for years among advocates and lawmakers, over who should represent the interests of Pennsylvania crime victims in Harrisburg.

A long-simmering debate

Storm’s critics from the left say she has failed to deliver policies that help communities of color heal from the trauma of gun violence, incarceration, and poverty.

By arguing in favor of stronger sentencing laws — and against bills that grant parole eligibility to people sentenced to life in prison — her detractors say Storm has worked against communities most affected by violent crime. That includes a large number of victims who have seen their loved ones incarcerated.

“[The current victim advocate] has spoken up for victims of sexual assault, and I commend that,” Street said during a floor debate in early September. “But she has not spoken up for victims of gun violence. She has not spoken up for inner-city victims of crime. She has not spoken up for victims I’ve represented.”

Storm has opposed legislation Street introduced in 2018 granting parole eligibility to more than 5,000 Pennsylvanians serving life prison sentences – a stance that’s based on a survey her office conducted among more than 800 family members of homicide victims.

She clashed with Senate Republicans, meanwhile, when she marshaled her office in support of statute of limitations reform, which made it easier for child victims of abuse to sue and press charges against their abusers.

The proposal gained broad support as a remedy to the clergy sex abuse that was detailed in a 2018 grand jury report by the state Attorney General’s office. But the high-profile battle exploded in the Senate the same year when Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, did not call the legislation up for a vote.

Scarnati joined all but two of his colleagues in September to vote for the amendment blocking Storm from a second term.

His office declined to comment on his position and referred questions to Pittman, who said in a statement that “requiring the Victim Advocate be a licensed attorney will ensure victims are provided with the highest standard of representation and guidance at a time when they are most vulnerable.”

A 100-year setback

In an interview with the Capital-Star this month, Storm said that her advocacy is bound to win her adversaries in Harrisburg because it puts crime victims ahead of partisan politics.

“If I am doing my job with fidelity, not everyone in the room is going to be a fan of me,” Storm said. “If you’re truly representing the needs of victims and families … it’s not partisan.”

But Storm and others roundly dismissed the idea that attorneys are uniquely qualified to advocate for victims.

Mary Achilles, the state’s first appointed victim advocate who served under Gov. Tom Ridge, said the proposal would “set the office back 100 years.”

“Victims don’t need someone to be a legal advocate for them or give them legal advice,” Achilles told the Capital-Star. “We need someone who is looking at the crisis and trauma so when fights in the legal system are over, they prepare people to continue with healing.”

Criminal justice reform advocates such as Robert Saleem Holbrook agree that a law degree doesn’t qualify someone to advocate for crime victims.

But he echoed Street’s argument that Storm has failed to represent victims in cities including Philadelphia, where gun violence this year reached levels unseen in more than a decade.

Holbrook said that Storm presents the interests of crime victims as diametrically opposed to those of offenders. That dichotomy dissolves in communities with concentrated crime, he said, since many victims of crime have also had first-hand experiences with the criminal justice system.

“There is no wall in our community between victims and offenders,” Holbrook said. “We’re all from the same community.The idea that retributive policies work in these communities is only promoted by people who are out of touch.”

Holbrook would like to see a victim advocate who will prioritize restorative justice and oppose harsh sentencing policies that contribute to mass incarceration. He thinks that could be achieved by appointing a Philadelphia resident who has lost a loved one to gun violence, or who has a loved one in the criminal justice system.

Storm told the Capital-Star that her office has expanded its presence in Pennsylvania’s largest cities during her tenure. That’s allowed it to ramp up victim registration in communities hard-hit by crime, which she says will influence the positions her office takes in the legislature.

Achilles said she couldn’t comment on how the Office of the Victim Advocate has changed under Storm’s leadership. But she says she was moved by comments Street made from the Senate floor this month, when he called on Storm to be more visible after shootings in his district.

“That needs to be a wake up call, and maybe that’s something people need to think about,” Achilles told the Capital-Star. “Being immersed in the communities you serve is important … and victims will teach you what you need to know.”

These crime victims have lost loved ones to murder — and to prison. That’s why they want to end life without parole in Pennsylvania