Who’s who in the criminal process: information for victims of crime

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

A lot of different people work in the criminal courthouse in Massachusetts. It can be hard to know what each person does. It is fine to ask court staff, "Who are you? What do you do here?"

I am a victim of a crime. Who handles the case in the criminal court?

If your case goes to criminal court, the District Attorney's (DA’s) office will prosecute the case. “Prosecute” means they are pressing the charges against the abusive person and moving the case forward. In Massachusetts, the DA’s office is often referred to as “the Commonwealth” because they represent the state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Criminal cases are written Commonwealth vs. (the Defendant’s name).

There are two kinds of people you will probably speak with in the DA's office:

  • The Assistant District Attorney (ADA): ADAs are the lawyers who prosecute crimes. You will see them handle the arraignment, the trials, and any other hearings during criminal cases. The ADAs should talk to you about the case and help prepare you for talking to the court about what happened (“testifying”).
  • The Victim/Witness Advocate (VWA): Each District Attorney's office has a Victim/Witness Assistance Program. The people who work in this office help victims and witnesses of crimes. They usually aren’t lawyers. You will probably meet the VWA right at the start of the case. You should write down the name of the VWA who is on your case, and call them whenever you have questions or concerns about the case. The VWA often has a hotline telephone number. The VWA can help you:
    • understand what will happen in criminal court,
    • understand your rights,
    • prepare for testifying against the abusive person in criminal court,
    • write a "Victim Impact Statement" for the court,
    • file for a 209A protective order (also called a restraining order),
    • apply for help to pay some of your bills from the Victims' Compensation Fund,
    • understand how to file your own criminal complaint,
    • find out if and when the abusive person will be let out of jail,
    • get services that you need.
Are the people from the District Attorney’s office my lawyers?

No. The people who work in the DA’s office represent the state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They do not represent you. If you are the victim in the case, their job is to advocate for an outcome in the case that makes you and the community safer. See more at If the abusive person is charged with a crime, will I have any say in how the criminal case goes?

The things you tell the DA’s office are not confidential. They will share information you gave them with the court and the abusive person’s lawyer. It is important to know this when you are deciding how much information to give the DA’s office.

The DA’s office will want to know your opinions about the case. But they don’t always handle the case the way you want. Victim/Witness Advocates are there to guide victims of crime through the criminal justice system. They can help explain why the DA’s office is handling the case the way they are. They can also share your concerns with the ADA handling the case.

You might not want to be part of the criminal case against the abusive person. Maybe this is because you are afraid or because you don’t want the abusive person to go to jail. The DA’s office can listen to what you want but they can’t drop a criminal case just because you want them to. 

Some Victim/Witness Advocates might pressure you to participate in the criminal case. For this reason, if the crime involves domestic violence, you may want to talk to a domestic violence counselor before you speak with a Victim/Witness Advocate. For a referral to a domestic violence program you can contact Jane Doe, Inc. or Safelink. If you prefer to speak with a counselor from a program focusing on same-sex violence, you can also call The Network/La Red or Fenway Health’s Violence Recovery Program.

Also, you may want to call a private lawyer. Legal aid programs in Massachusetts do not handle criminal cases. There are a number of lawyer referral programs that can refer you to a private lawyer. If you have low income, they may charge you a lower rate. Some private lawyers do not charge for a first visit or phone call.

As a victim of crime, do I have any rights in the criminal system?

Massachusetts has a "Victim Bill of Rights." As the victim of a crime, you have the following rights:

  • The right to information about the Criminal Justice System;
  • The right to information about the criminal case involving you;
  • The right to go to court hearings and be heard;
  • The right to prepare a "Victim Impact Statement;"
  • The right to talk to the District Attorney's Office at important points in the case;
  • The right to money for certain items and costs from the Victim Compensation Fund, witness fees, and "restitution" (money that the court might charge the person who abused you; 
  • The right to be told where the person who abused you is, such as:
    • if they move to a less secure facility;
    • if they have been let go for some period of time or permanently;
    • if they escape; or
    • if they will get parole;
  • You may have the right to get more information about the abusive person's criminal record and whether or not they are meeting the terms of their sentence;
  • The right to other protections in the Criminal Justice System.

For more information on these rights, call the Victim/Witness Advocate. 

The person who abused me is in jail, but not for a crime against me. I am afraid of this person. How can I find out when they are getting out of jail?

There is a form that you can use to find out when the abusive person is getting out of jail, even if they are in jail because of a crime against someone else. You can get this form from the Victim/Witness Advocate. You can also Register to receive notifications about an offender on the Department of Criminal Justice Information Service (DCJIS) website.

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Who to call for help with domestic violence
DV - Who to call for help

Call 911 if you are in danger right now.

If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:

See Jane Doe's list of Massachusetts domestic violence programs and court resources for safety and support.


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