The mission of the Union County District Attorney’s office is to uphold the United States Constitution, to preserve the safety of the public, to protect the rights of crime victims and to pursue justice for all citizens with skill, honor and integrity, according to its website.
The victim advocacy wing in the DA’s office on the second floor of the Joseph Building is working on doing just that.
Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel and her staff have transformed the wing into a space with comfortable chairs, toys for children and a closet stocked with court-appropriate clothing.
“We have redone (part of the floor) to make it more comfortable and kid friendly,” McDaniel told The Observer on Tuesday. “If someone’s on trial, this is where victims can wait and then we can come get them, as opposed to sitting in the courthouse the whole time.”
The sitting room features a couch and comfortable chairs, with a bench full of toys, a TV with children-friendly movies and a fireplace that McDaniel said is quite popular in the winter.
She explained the room had previously been an office, but three years ago her staff members joined efforts to make the room a comfort zone.
“It makes a big difference,” she said. “People feel differently sitting on a couch versus in an office or in the courthouse.”
In the neighboring room stands a floor-to-ceiling closet holding attire that can be worn to court.
McDaniel said when the new courthouse was built in La Grande, the circuit court revamped its dress code policy and began enforcing it.
“If the court system pays attention to how the defendant feels in the court, then we need to be the ones who pay attention to how the victim feels in the court for the same reason, because juries are looking at both,” McDaniel said. “I don’t know of any other program like this.”
According to the Oregon State Courts website, unacceptable attire in a courtroom include tank tops, spaghetti straps, shorts, sagging pants, leggings, dirty clothing or clothing with holes.
“We’ve had a few experiences when our victims presenting in court (were) turned away because of their attire,” McDaniel said.
She explained many of the individuals her office works with have been arrested the night before or are fleeing from domestic violence situations. As a result, they don’t have much more than the clothes they were wearing at that time.
“If you flee your home you may not have access to courtroom appropriate attire,” McDaniel said. “And you might not be accustomed to (wearing clothes that are acceptable for) going to court. (However) you have a constitutional right under the state to attend those court hearings, and (not having court appropriate) clothing is an extra barrier to you accessing justice.”
She pointed out that being turned away from a court hearing is demoralizing to victims.
“They’re already in a place they probably don’t want to be and feeling like they don’t have control over the situation (because they are) confronting their offender in court,” she said. “But then to be told they’re not dressed appropriately? That didn’t sit well with us.”
Members of the DA’s office donated clothing from their own closets and began scouring sale racks for cardigans and blazers that could be worn over tank tops.
McDaniel said they were concerned that some people not be responsive to their office due to discomfort of not having the right clothing. They now try to keep the closet stocked with court-appropriate clothing for both men and women, and the clients are allowed to keep the clothes they wear to court.
“Any time you come to court (for hearings or for trial),” McDaniel said, “we’ll make sure you have something you feel comfortable in.”
The DA told the story of a time when both the victim and defendant were arrested. She said when defendants are in custody, they have a right to present in court in front of a jury without being dressed in jail attire, so as not to sway the jury’s opinion of them.
“There’s really no mechanism in place that gives the victim that same right, even though constitutionally they have that right,” McDaniel said.
In this case, the victim wanted to be present for the trial but had been arrested in basketball shorts and a white T-shirt.
“We knew the defendant was going to show up in a three-piece suit,” McDaniel said.
“We had grant funding at the time so we measured him and bought him some dress clothes,” she said.
McDaniel said this incident made her realize how important clothing was to a person’s self-confidence.
“The clothes gave him a different sense of self. Just the fact that we had considered that in his situation changed the dynamic of us working with him. It helped him to feel entitled to be in that courtroom and tell his story,” she said. “Just because he had made his own mistakes didn’t mean that we were not going to treat him with respect.”
She said it also made them aware they needed to have men’s clothing on hand as well.
“Men are less likely to think about what they need to wear, or even tell us if they’re concerned about it,” McDaniel said.