Someday, Joanna Katz will stop fighting for victims’ rights. But by that time, all of the men who abducted, beat, and gang-raped her one very long night in Charleston 19 years ago will probably be out of prison.
In fact, two got out last year, having served a fraction of the three-decade sentences they received because they were charged before Jan. 1, 1996, when the state’s Truth in Sentencing laws requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their time behind bars went into effect.
And, yes, it bothers her that two of her rapists are now free to live next door to her, and that they don’t have to report to any law enforcement authorities ever again.
Those are a few of the many reasons Katz fights so hard to make it so easy for victims of violent crime to bear witness at their perpetrators’ parole hearings.
Every year for years, Katz had to make multiple trips to Columbia to appear at her assailants’ parole hearings. Twice one year, three times the next, one for each of her attackers.
Then she and local documentarian filmmaker Liz Oakley released Sentencing the Victim, which showed her efforts to change state law so that she and other victims of crime with multiple attackers wouldn’t have to travel to Columbia over and over and over and over and over.
The film was successful, not only spurring a change in state law that now combines similar parole hearings on the same day of the same year, but it also won Katz the Order of the Palmetto medal from then-Gov. Jim Hodges after the documentary was shown nationwide on PBS’s Independent Lens series.
Despite the laurels, Katz began pushing for legislation that would prevent victims of violent crime from even having to travel to Columbia at all.
Last week, she won another hard-fought victory when the state unveiled a teleconferencing site at a N. Charleston armory that will allow victims to speak to the state Parole Board via a megascreen television, a digital video camera, and a dedicated computer line during parole hearings.
“We got lucky that enough lawmakers in South Carolina saw the film and were angered about what they saw and got upset and did something about it,” says Oakley.
Several local lawmakers, including state Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell and state Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, were instrumental in getting State Bill 935 through both sides of the Statehouse, says Katz.
Katz knows that creating actual physical distance between the board and the victim could be problematic for those concerned about making as big an impact at a hearing as possible.
“Obviously, it’s still going to be important for some victims to be there,” says Katz, who doesn’t believe the electronic advantage the teleconferencing technology affords will diminish the message. “To be honest, I sometimes think the parole board has made up its mind before it ever hears from me or them.”
According to Peter O’Boyle, spokesperson for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services, his department had already been using the technology for years, allowing inmates to teleconference from prison, saving the state the expense and risk of transporting them to a Devine Street facility in Columbia.
But, even though the inmates were already online and the bill had passed, it continued to frustrate Katz that there was no state money to hire people to run the teleconferencing services for victims.
Now, thanks to a federal formula act grant of roughly $42,000, close to 2,500 victims in a 10-county region surrounding Charleston will be able to go to the S.C. National Guard Armory instead.
And maybe that will take some of the sting out of a painful trip down Memory Lane.
If it does, Joanna Katz will be happy, but not satisfied.