BY SARAH KIRKMAN

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week is scheduled for April 24-30, 2022. This year’s theme is “Rights, Access, Equity for All Victims.” The theme relates to helping crime victims find justice by enforcing victims’ rights, expanding access to services and ensuring equity for all.

I believe the mission of my office is to achieve justice for victims and to protect the community. Part of that justice for victims means not only prosecuting offenders, but also connecting victims with resources and services. In my office, I have Victim Service Coordinators and District Attorney Legal Assistants who do just that. They are able to talk to victims, hear their concerns and refer them to the many resources which we have in our community to help victims.

Another way my office helps victims is by giving them information about the court system. When a victim finds himself or herself involved in the court system for the first time, it can be an overwhelming experience. My staff is there to explain the process every step of the way. Two issues that people often have questions about are the difference between civil and criminal court, and why defendants receive the sentences that they do.

As to the first issue, civil and criminal courts are two very different avenues that exist within the court system:

♦ Civil court deals with lawsuits and liability; and

♦ Criminal court deals with crimes and criminal prosecutions.

My office is only involved in criminal court. As prosecutors, our job is to prosecute crimes. We are not involved in civil court.

But one area where both civil and criminal courts are involved is the Domestic Violence Protective Order. Applying for the order and obtaining the order are civil actions. But if a person violates the Domestic Violence Protective Order, that is a crime. The violation in and of itself is a crime (Violation of Domestic Violence Protective Order N.C.G.S. 50B-4.1), and the underlying act that constitutes the violation could be a crime. Examples of underlying acts that are crimes are Harassing Phone Calls, Communicating Threats and Intimidating a Witness. Those acts could constitute violations of the Domestic Violence Protective Orders, but they are also crimes by themselves.

As to why defendants receive certain sentences, it is important to know that in criminal court, judges sentence defendants according to a sentencing structure devised by the N.C. Legislature. Under this sentencing structure, defendants receive certain sentences based on two main factors – the class of the crime committed and the defendant’s prior record level.

In sentencing a defendant, the judge first looks at what class the crime is. Misdemeanor crimes are classified according to their severity, ranging from Class A1 to Class 3, with Class A1 being the most serious, and Class 3 being the least serious. An example of a Class A1 Misdemeanor is Assault on a Female, and an example of a Class 3 Misdemeanor is Second-Degree Trespass.

Felony crimes are also classified according to severity, ranging from Class A to Class I. The most serious felony, a Class A, would be First-Degree Murder, and an example of the least serious felony, a Class I, would be Uttering a Forged Check.

Once the judge determines the class of the crime, he or she then looks at the defendant’s prior record level. The defendant’s prior record level is determined by looking at his or her criminal history and determining which prior convictions count for misdemeanor sentencing, and which prior convictions count as sentencing points for felony sentencing.

The classes of crimes and the prior record levels are on a grid that the judge then uses to determine which block the defendant falls into to determine the defendant’s sentence. While there is a range in each block, the judge may only sentence the defendant within the block. So, by and large, the judge is bound by a sentence that the Legislature has determined is appropriate for a specific crime and a defendant with a specific record level.

Victims sometimes do not understand where a sentence comes from or why defendants’ sentences are not as severe as they would like. My staff members are there to explain the process to them when considering plea offers and understanding possible outcomes in a case. That is an important role that my office plays in providing services to victims.

During this National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, I, along with my staff members, renew our commitment to achieving justice for victims. We renew our commitment to Rights, Access, Equity for All Victims.

Sarah Kirkman is the District Attorney for Alexander and Iredell counties.

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