Ingleside woman pushing bill to provide attorney at no charge to victims of violent crime

Denise Rotheimer started her fight for victims rights in 2003 when prosecutors offered reduced prison time to the man pleading guilty to sexually assaulting her daughter two years earlier.

Prosecutors were willing to accept a six-year sentence, and allow the man parole eligibility after he served 85 percent of that time.

"I wanted him (the defendant) to be sent to jail for the 15 years police said he would be," Rotheimer said.

She made her objection known to the judge. When the judge heard Rotheimer wasn't happy, the plea deal was altered to boost the sentence by one and a half years.

That experience launched a decadelong effort by Rotheimer, 44, of Ingleside, to push for changes to the Rights of Crime Victim and Witnesses Act, commonly known as the Illinois Crime Victims' Bill of Rights. That act is designed to preserve, protect and enforce the guaranteed rights of crime victims throughout the criminal justice process, and also ensures victims receive notice of court proceedings, opens lines of communication between victims and prosecutors, and gives victims a voice on post-arraignment release decisions, pleas or sentencings.

But Rotheimer said the act doesn't go far enough, so she's pushing for a change to give crime victims the ability to retain an attorney for ongoing criminal cases at no charge to ensure their rights are enforced.

Money to pay for the lawyer would be taken from the Crime Victim Compensation Fund, established to reduce the financial burden on victims of violent crime and their families, she said. The law now allows crime victims the right to legal representation, but victims must pay for the attorney on their own, she said.

As Rotheimer sees it, the change would level the playing field for crime victims in court.

"Victims of violent crime have no one protecting their interest in a criminal case that directly affects them," she says bluntly.

The legislation is expected to be brought up for discussion in the Illinois Senate judiciary committee in the coming week, Rotheimer said. If it passes through that committee, it could immediately move to the floors of state Senate and House for a vote.

However, approval is not a slam dunk.

State Sen. Pam Althoff, who is co-sponsoring the amendment, said while conceptually "she's (Rotheimer) dead-on with this legislation," money is always an issue.

"Especially since the state doesn't have any," she added.

Althoff also said officials in the state attorney general's office oppose the bill because they want to see how other recent amendments to the crime victim act operate before changing the law again.

This is the third time Rotheimer has worked to make changes to the crime victim act since her daughter was sexually assaulted. "Jasmine's Law," approved in 2010, enables judges to double prison sentences on felony sex offenses for offenders who commit an act of sexual violence against minors where the victim was under the influence of alcohol. She also helped craft the Victims' Rights Sign-Off Sheet in 2013, which requires law enforcement to furnish crime victims with information and an explanation of their rights within 48 hours of reporting the crime.

Rotheimer contends a common mistake made by many victims is believing prosecutors are there to act as their lawyer.

"They are there as an attorney for the state and there to follow the law," she said.

Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim, who supports Rotheimer's proposed legislation, agrees.

He said the role of a prosecutor isn't to "represent the victim against the defendant," but rather to follow the law.

However, he added, prosecutors should be mindful of the victims and the crime victims bill of rights when prosecuting crimes.

"Often times our interests align with the victim and we support them, but we do not legally represent them," he said.

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