WASHINGTON - To Jamie Balson, it seemed like prosecutors treated domestic violence victims more like a "tool" toward winning a conviction than the people they were.
So she set out to change that.
The Peoria attorney started a program to train police officers on victims' rights and the responsibilities they have to the victims during an investigation. The success of that spurred her to create a foundation that helps victims of violent crime pursue civil action against their attackers.
"Victims aren't just a piece of evidence," said Balson, a deputy county attorney in Maricopa County. "They need to have an active voice while the case is going on."
Her work to change courtroom perspectives and give domestic violence victims the "voice they deserve" was recognized Wednesday by the Justice Department. It named Balson one of 10 recipients from around the country of the National Crime Victims' Rights Service Award.
At a ceremony in Washington to bestow the honor Wednesday, Karol Mason, the assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, said the work of advocates like Balson is important because the justice system has not succeeded in reducing the number of victims in the nation.
"If we fail victims … we have lost something vital in the search for justice," Mason said.
Balson discovered early in her career that the justice system was failing to support victims of crimes like domestic violence and rape, who were often overlooked during the investigation and trial of their cases.
"It's forgotten that these are the people the crime happened to, and they're the people who should be the center of it," Balson said.
While working with crime victims at a local police department, she said she noticed a lack of training for officers on how to handle victims.
"What happened was there was kind of a disconnection between what the officers thought they had to do in terms of victims' rights and that got me thinking about it," Balson said.
More than just think about it, she took action. She began a program to train police officers on victims' rights and the responsibilities officers have to them during an investigation.
"I put together a training program for the officers and it's kind of just taken off from there," she said.
After the training program caught on, Balson decided to go a step further and try to change the way victims were handled during trials. She said she felt courts often forgot the victims and their perspectives on cases.
"(The victims) shouldn't be able to just sit there and watch and not be heard and not have their side to it," Balson said.
She became a civil attorney who advocated for domestic violence victims inside the courtroom and focused on giving them a stronger voice at trials by keeping them at the center of each case.
Now, Balson frequently speaks at local shelters and various agencies in Arizona about domestic violence and how victims can get orders of protection.
She helped found the Never Again Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps families sue to keep killers from profiting from the murder of a loved one.
Although the foundation is currently on hold because of a lack of funds, Balson said she continues to support training programs on victims' rights and to help "victims get healing through the law."