Before the age of electronic information available instantly to anyone, a local small-town sheriff might pick up the phone to alert a crime victim that the person they feared was about to be released from jail. Today, in many states, a victim alert notification system, known as "VINE," is available for up-to-date, automatic notification of an inmate's release date.
Searching for Clues
Finding out a prisoner's release date is important to a crime victim. Most people don't know they can obtain information about the transfer or release dates of prisoners. One method is calling the local prosecutor's office or the jail itself.
In addition, many areas have a "Victim/Witness Protection" program, or a "Victim/Witness Advocate," that you can consult free of charge for information about coping with the offender's upcoming release.
Also, some courts across the country now put their case records online for viewing. These records are arranged by case number or by the name of the defendant for easy searching. However, detailed information such as address and booking date usually aren't available online.
Learning more could mean viewing the court file in person at the clerk's office in the courthouse. Be prepared for a long wait if the courthouse is in a major metropolitan area, or if the court file dates back several years.
The VINE System
Some states, such as Wisconsin, offer the VINE notification service in several counties. The VINE system, or Victim Information and Notification Everyday, is available at VINELink. This database allows crime victims access to information about criminal cases and the custody status of offenders 24 hours a day.
VINE provides a way for victims or others to register to be notification by phone or e-mail when an offender's status changes. The offenders don't know the identity of anyone registering for this service.
The service is free to individuals in participating regions through grants from the US Department of Justice. Check on your county or state's Web site, or your State's Department of Corrections Web site, to inquire about the service.
Don't assume that all you need is a first and last name to research in the VINE system. Gather all the information you can about the offender, such as:
- Middle initial;
- The criminal case number;
- Court location;
- Social Security number;
- Former address;
- Date of birth; and
- Location of jail
Several people may have similar names, so it's better to have precise information.
Use Caution with the Information
The point of this research is to be prepared for an inmate's release. You may want to take precautions especially if you may be in danger. The Victim/Witness advocate program or the local prosecutor can provide you with helpful details.
Knowledge is power, and more so in this case. While there may not be anything you can do to prevent an inmate from being released, you can at least prepare for the inevitable.
If you have a reasonable belief that the inmate may cause you or a family member physical harm or harassment, talk with an attorney about whether legal proceedings can be instituted. Such actions might include a petition for a temporary restraining order, which is heard and entered ex parte, meaning without the presence of the inmate.
However, such an order is served to the inmate, and your address is revealed unless the court specifically orders that it can't be released. The next step is a petition for a permanent restraining order. However, at that phase the inmate has a right to advance notice and can be present in court to argue against such an order.
An attorney can give you valuable assistance and advice about the wisest and safest way to proceed once you've learned of an inmate's upcoming release.
Knowledge is power. In this case, it can also give you peace of mind.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How accurate is the VINE system used in our area, and in my case, are there any other precautions I should take?
- Is it difficult to get a restraining order? What do I have to do, as a crime victim or someone who has reason to fear an inmate, to show a court that an order's justified?
- Do you coordinate any services with the victim's advocate/resources in our area?
- If an inmate is in an out-of-state prison, what precautions should I take since more than one state could be involved upon the inmate's release?