All states have passed laws guaranteeing the rights of crime victims to participate in the criminal justice process, while 29 states have amended their state constitutions to include protections for victims of crime. Examples of these rights include making statements at sentencing and parole hearings; receiving notification of court proceedings and actions concerning case disposition; and applying for financial assistance or compensation from the state.
Although these statutes and amendments mandate the provision of rights and services, they do not mandate procedures by which to implement them. Several states in recent years have developed programs that provide recourse to crime victims who feel that their rights have been violated. In this analysis, the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) analyzed the elements of the victims' rights compliance enforcement programs in Colorado, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
These programs differ from state to state in their structure and scope of activity. Victims of crime in Colorado, for example, are able to file complaints with the state's Victims' Compensation and Assistance Coordinating Committee (coordinating committee) when they feel that their rights have been denied. Wisconsin's Department of Justice, Office of Crime Victims' Services provides a similar function through the Victim Resource Center, which may mediate complaints brought by victims, or act as a liaison between victims and state and local criminal justice agencies. The state of Minnesota has appointed a crime victims' ombudsman to advocate for fairness and impartiality for victims seeking services from the state. The ombudsman's office retains the power to investigate victims' claims of unlawful or inappropriate action on the part of criminal justice and victims' services providers.
In Colorado, the coordinating committee, and its Victims' Rights Act (VRA) subcommittee have been charged with the enforcement of victims' rights since 1993. The committee structure helps afford victims their rights by overseeing the actions of local government agencies, while at the same time keeping with the state's tradition of deferring to decentralized policymaking and local autonomy in the provision of services.
Complaints brought before the VRA subcommittee and the full committee must be violations of a victim's rights under the state constitutional amendment. The enabling legislation that accompanied the amendment in 1992 -- the VRA -- defines specific crimes for which victims are afforded constitutional rights, the stages of the criminal justice process about which they will be informed and may be present, and the responsibilities of criminal justice practitioners in providing victims' protections under Colorado law.
The committee structure relies significantly on staff support provided by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ). Staff members field inquiries from victims concerning the VRA, compile information from both victims and parties alleged to have violated a victim's rights, and review formal complaints for noncompliance before they are presented to the subcommittee. In addition, an important role of DCJ staff in the process is to set the appropriate expectation for what victims can and cannot receive through the VRA and compliance enforcement process.
The subcommittee and the full coordinating committee have the power to investigate VRA violations and are able to recommend action with which the agency must comply to rectify victims' complaints. The subcommittee and full coordinating committee also may monitor the implementation of those suggestions. When identified agencies do not comply with the coordinating committee's directives, the matter may be referred to the governor and/or the attorney general for review.
A summary of the process is as follows: victims of certain serious crimes must file a formal complaint with the DCJ staff, which reviews the complaints to determine if the allegation falls under the purview of the VRA. If the DCJ staff determines that the VRA subcommittee has jurisdiction, they will contact the agencies whose actions are in question and forward applicable complaints to the subcommittee for review. The subcommittee, which meets monthly, retains the following responsibilities concerning victims' rights compliance:
- reviewing reports of noncompliance
to determine if there is a basis
- conducting hearings when
appropriate to determine if there is
a basis in fact to the complaint;
- establishing findings and conditions
to resolve the complaint if the
identified agency is not in compliance
with the VRA; and
- referring any appeals of the
subcommittee's decisions to the
In cases in which the subcommittee finds that the victims' allegations have a basis in fact, it may prescribe directives with which the agency must comply. The subcommittee may require that the agency outline the steps that will be undertaken to rectify the violation, and may approve the proposed plan or ask for a revised version when appropriate.
Both victims and agencies may request to appeal a subcommittee finding to the full coordinating committee. Agencies that do not comply with the coordinating committee's directives will be referred to the governor's office, which may require the attorney general to file suit against the agency.
Although the compliance enforcement program in Colorado has been in effect only since 1993, more victims have become aware that they have an avenue by which to assure agency compliance with the VRA. As a result, the number of inquiries received by the DCJ is growing steadily. The DCJ has kept statistics on VRA complaints and inquiries filed with the office since its enabling legislation became effective:
- In 1993, there was one VRA
- In 1994, there were 10 inquiries
to the DCJ for alleged VRA
noncompliance, with two
substantiated claims resulting;
- In 1995, there were 17 inquiries,
with seven formal complaints filed,
four of which were not considered
to fall within the purview of the
- In 1996, there were 40 inquiries,
nine of which resulted in a formal
complaint being filed
When considering a victim's allegations, DCJ staff, subcommittee, and full coordinating committee members must discern closely a victim's action and the criminal justice system's response to ensure an appropriate determination of a victim's charge. For example, subcommittee members received similar complaints from victims of domestic violence in two separate and unrelated cases. Both victims attested that the prosecutors trying the cases against their abusers did not inform them of various hearings or notify them of the progression of the case.
In the first instance, the subcommittee found -- after reviewing documentation provided by the district attorney's office, law enforcement agency, and victim -- that the prosecutor in question had not upheld a victim's right to be present and heard at the critical stages of the proceedings. The subcommittee rectified the situation by requiring the county district attorney to submit copies of several office policies that help prosecutors ensure a victim's right is met and describe the specific steps to enforce the VRA protections to the individual victim. The subcommittee, upon its review of the submitted information, further required the creation of policies within the office to ensure that victims are consulted when there are changes to the charges originally filed.
In the second case, the victim was upset about an offer to settle the charges against her assailant and frustrated by delays in the proceedings against him. After review of lengthy documentation submitted by the victim and the county district attorney, the subcommittee held that the delays were not the fault of the prosecutor, and that the decision to settle the case was handled appropriately by the county. Although not finding assault, the subcommittee in this latter instance reiterated in its findings that criminal justice practitioners should engage in explicit and overt communications with victims to help them better understand the criminal justice process.
Many factors have contributed to the success of the compliance enforcement mechanism in Colorado. Participants refer to many intra-committee factors that have contributed to this positive beginning -- collaborative working relationships among diverse members, an honest discourse on the issues, and a shared approach and dedication to improving the criminal justice system. Another important strength is the role that the DCJ staff plays in the process. The staff collects and disseminates complaint information in a manner that is mindful of both the victim's perspective and the challenges faced by the criminal justice system in providing victims' rights. Finally, participants believe the compliance enforcement process works well within the decentralized political climate of the state.
Although there exists significant support for the current structure of compliance enforcement, participants identify components of the process that could be improved upon. These improvements, however, would most often require resources that are currently unavailable. As a result, participants are struggling to develop effective yet viable alternatives to improve on perceived weaknesses -- like outreach to more rural areas and shortening the time required to resolve victim complaints.
In an effort to prepare for the future, the DCJ staff is planning on conducting a satisfaction survey of both victims and agencies charged with providing victims' rights later this year. The survey will be sent to those involved with a VRA compliance case to gauge the opinions of individuals and agencies about the compliance enforcement process. The DCJ hopes to elicit information about both the strengths and the weaknesses of the current program, as well as any suggestions for improving the process for the future.
Since 1986, Minnesota has had in place an oversight function -- the Office of the Crime Victims Ombudsman (OCVO) -- to help ensure that victims are guaranteed their rights and treated fairly and appropriately by criminal justice practitioners. OCVO officials may investigate both statutory violations of victims' rights laws and alleged mistreatment by criminal justice practitioners. In conducting their work, OCVO officials indicate that they approach the enforcement of victims' rights in a neutral and objective manner. They act not as victims' advocates but as advocates of fair government.
The statute creating the OCVO defined the primary features that make the ombudsman unique as an oversight body:
The ombudsman, although created by the legislature and appointed by the governor, acts relatively autonomously. Although appointed by an elected official, the only legislatively mandated reporting requirement of the OCVO is a biennial report to the legislature and governor concerning its activities during the preceding biennium.
The ombudsman's power comes from the discretion with which an investigation is pursued. The statute clarifies that the ombudsman may investigate any action of the criminal justice system or a victim assistance program. In addition to responding to requests for investigations by citizens, the ombudsman has the discretion to inspect the actions of administrative agencies on her own initiative and may pursue cases based on reports in the press. The ombudsman may request and examine information from agencies -- including records and documents of all agencies of the criminal justice system and victim assistance programs -- to fulfill her responsibilities.
Power of Publicity.
Unlike the courts, the ombudsman has no right to reverse a decision and has no direct control over judicial or executive branch decisionmaking. The ombudsman's reach is limited to investigating alleged abuses and proposing remedies when appropriate. According to Minnesota statute, the ombudsman may make public -- to both the press and the legislature -- her findings after an investigation.
The OCVO enabling legislation defines appropriate methods of conducting investigations, including acting as a liaison between victim and agency, promoting activities that strengthen criminal justice systems, preventing violations of a victim's right, and establishing procedures for referral to appropriate victims' services agencies.
In response to citizens' complaints, OCVO officials may make recommendations to the agency to rectify the situation. These recommendations range from contacting the agency on behalf of the victim and expressing concern about the issue at hand to voicing concern about the investigation of a case by law enforcement officials or suggesting model policies that the agency can employ to assure victims' rights are honored. If authorities do not accept the recommendations of the ombudsman, however, the OCVO has no enforcement or disciplinary powers. The ombudsman's principal means to secure remedial action is through making public, to both the legislature and the press, the action or inaction of an agency.
Typically, once a complaint is reported, the OCVO staff assesses the needs of the victim, determines whether referrals should be made to other agencies, and informs the complainant of the most appropriate manner for resolving the grievance. The OCVO next gathers information from the agency against which the victim alleges wrongdoing. Based on the information gleaned in the investigation, the investigator must determine whether any statute, policy, or practice was violated, or if mistreatment occurred. The investigator must determine the most appropriate resolution to the problem, plan for any subsequent follow-up with either the agency or the victim, and present the findings to the ombudsman for her review and approval.
With several years of fielding calls from victims and investigating alleged cases of mistreatment and unlawful behavior, OCVO officials have developed a variety of methods in responding to victims' concerns. OCVO officials like to respond to victims' concerns with "assists," or contact with the criminal justice official whose action is in question. Often this contact makes the criminal justice official aware that his action was not well received by the victim. Upon making this realization, most practitioners attempt to rectify their behavior immediately.
Another common method that the OCVO employs to assist victims of crime is to aid in clarifying for victims why the criminal justice system operates the way it does and why criminal justice practitioners make the decisions they do. For example, in a case where a victim's mother learned the prosecutor was not planning to bring charges against her daughter's assailant, the OCVO staff reviewed the case and the prosecutor's reasoning for declining prosecution. As a result of the OCVO investigation, the prosecutor sent a letter to the victim and explained in detail his reasoning for not bringing charges. While still disappointed in the charging decision, the mother better understood the prosecutor's reasoning in not trying the case.
Finally, the office, through its ability to make recommendations on policies and procedures that dictate the actions of criminal justice agencies, can affect systemic change as well. Once, when receiving three separate complaints involving one county's prosecutor and victim/witness program, OCVO investigators conducted a systemic investigation of the county's program. They recommended a needs assessment to determine if the county should restructure its current services, or if it needed more funding and increased staff. The recommendation was forwarded to the DOC, which conducted the assessment. The DOC has completed its analysis and currently is working with the county to help it meet its goals of improved services to crime victims.
Although the OCVO has been in place since 1986, extensive statistics on the office's caseload have only been available since 1992. Over the past four years, the OCVO has kept data on its activity as well as the types of victims who seek its services. Specifically, the OCVO tracks the number of inquiries made to the office, the end result of its cases, and the number of complaints filed by crime type.
OCVO observers and participants note both strengths and weaknesses of the OCVO structure as it exists currently. The broad investigative powers of the OCVO, for example, are one of its greatest strengths, in addition to its simple, expedient manner of handling complaints. The OCVO staff, however, has expressed concern about the office's ability to provide equal services to citizens in all parts of the state. Officials cite outreach to the citizens, victims of crime, and criminal justice practitioners in more rural areas of Minnesota as a primary concern.
The OCVO staff has developed three primary goals for the next biennium, in addition to continuing the services provided currently by the office and expanding current evaluation efforts. These objectives are to enhance services and outreach to victims, augment relations with other agencies within the criminal justice system and victims' services realms, and become more efficient in day-to-day case management and office operations.
Policymakers in Wisconsin have created a system of victims' rights and services delivery that defers to county discretion for implementation. Since 1979, with the passage of the state's Bill of Rights for Crime Victims, counties that choose to participate may be reimbursed up to 90 percent for the costs associated with providing these programs. In an effort to complement county victim and witness services, state policymakers in the early 1990's created a state-level victims' services office -- the Wisconsin Victim Resource Center (Victim Resource Center) -- to provide victims and witnesses information about and referral to victims' services, crisis counseling, and assistance in securing resources and protection. A second charge of the Victim Resource Center is to act as a liaison between the agency and the victim in resolving complaints concerning unlawful or inappropriate agency action.
Because of its broad statutory authority, the Victim Resource Center provides a myriad of services to crime victims in Wisconsin, including direct services to victims in individual cases in which the state's Department of Justice (DOJ) has employed a special prosecutor to handle the proceedings for the government; assistance and support to victims of various sex crimes in cases in which the state is considering civilly committing their assailants; and the development of a statewide immediate response service for victims directly following the crime.
In their efforts to help victims of crime exercise their rights, the Victim Resource Center employs two primary programs: the Victim Assistance Notification Service (VANS) to notify victims of proceedings when an offender appeals his case; and liaison services in which Victim Resource Center officials act as a contact between victim and agency when the victim perceives his rights are not being protected.
Complaints brought to the attention of Victim Resource Center officials may concern poor treatment or unlawful action by criminal justice practitioners and county victim and witness assistance providers. Victim Resource Center officials may not, however, prescribe remedies for violations of a victims' constitutional protections. The scope of their ability to act, under current law, allows them only to investigate these complaints and present the victims' concerns to the official whose actions are in question.
There are several instances where Victim Resource Center officials may intervene on behalf of a victim. For example, Victim Resource Center officials often provide information about the criminal justice system to citizens who do not understand why a case is not being charged or a plea agreement has been entered. For example, one young woman contacted the Victim Resource Center because she did not understand why the county prosecutor was not filing criminal charges against her estranged partner, who sexually assaulted her and violated a restraining order she placed against him. She also was concerned about the prosecutor's perception of her credibility as a witness due to criminal charges she was facing.
Victim Resource Center officials explained to the complainant about prosecutorial discretion and why the district attorney did not have to file criminal charges against her assailant, and suggested that she contact the victim and witness assistance program in that county to explore how she may work collaboratively with the district attorney to express her concerns about the offender.
In another case, the father of a homicide victim perceived that he was being treated poorly by criminal justice practitioners and was upset that the trial against the alleged assailant had not begun. Further, he was angry that he had minimal contact from the victim and witness assistance coordinator in the county. The Victim Resource Center contacted the county victim and witness coordinator and expressed the victims' concerns. Together, they communicated to the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney the concerns of the victim, and were able to move up the trial date.
Finally, although Victim Resource Center officials are not able to prescribe recommendations for systemic or procedural change, there are instances when their efforts result in a better articulation of policy or procedure, which benefits victims in the future. For example, when a victim contacted the Victim Resource Center because she was not notified of the offender's date of release from state custody, Victim Resource Center officials contacted the county victim and witness coordinator, who recognized the miscommunication as a recurring one. As a result, the victim and witness assistance coordinator changed the form letter sent to victims to clarify that victims must request notification of release from the corrections officials themselves.
Currently, Victim Resource Center officials approach the day-to-day case management of complaints on an informal, case-by-case basis, which allows the executive director to be responsive to the individual needs of the victim. Because the Victim Resource Center also provides direct service in the form of crisis counseling and emotional support, officials indicate that it may be difficult to mandate certain procedures by which all cases must be handled. Rather, there are themes that dictate the Victim Resource Center's approach to facilitating the provision of victims' rights :
Acting as an Advocate for Victims.
Although Wisconsin statute currently describes the Victim Resource Center as a source for mediation between victim and agency, officials perceive their role as providing an advocacy and intervention service for all crime victims in the state. Victim Resource Center officials note that a primary reason for the development of the office was to provide direct services at the state level, and the opportunity to hear directly from victims affords them a more complete understanding of the victim's perspective when a question arises about an agency's compliance with victims' rights laws.
Defer to the Local Level First.
According to the Victim Resource Center's annual program report, it has been the practice of the office to rely heavily on local programs in addressing the concerns of victims and encourage victims to defer to local officials for ongoing information and support as a means to remedy a problem. In providing direct victim services, a common practice is to assess the victim's needs before making a referral to assure that the suggested contact agency is the most appropriate.
Collaborative Approach to Enforcement.
Victim Resource Center officials have adopted a collaborative tone in handling their relations with county criminal justice providers. Officials indicate that they prefer to work subtly with county officials and have developed an understanding of the proficiency and dedication of the individuals charged with providing victims' services in many Wisconsin counties. This approach has been effective, observers note, by allowing the Victim Resource Center to affect change in a professional manner that facilitates collaboration and cooperation among criminal justice providers.
Currently, the Victim Resource Center tracks statistical information by crime type and category of service provided. Officials indicate that they document all new contacts coming into the office. The number and nature of the calls received by the Victim Resource Center reflect the broad scope of its responsibilities to provide services, including crisis counseling and victims' rights oversight services, to the citizens of Wisconsin -- from July 1995 to June 1996, over 1,000 calls statewide were fielded by the Victim Resource Center staff. Because the Victim Resource Center shares a toll free number with the crime victim compensation program, many of the calls received are related to compensation questions.
Individuals involved in the criminal justice and victims' services profession in Wisconsin are largely supportive of the existence of the oversight function of the Victim Resource Center and of the nonbureaucratic and informal method with which officials are able to aid victims while working collaboratively with criminal justice practitioners. Another benefit of the Victim Resource Center cited by participants and observers is its affiliation with the DOJ and the leadership that the attorney general and OCVS officials bring to the issue of victims' rights.
Officials cite room for improving the process, however. Although a primary charge of the Victim Resource Center is to provide information about crime victims' rights and services, there is concern that victims in some areas of the state are not receiving information about the rights and services to which they are entitled under Wisconsin law and the availability of the Victim Resource Center to help them exercise those rights.
At the time of this writing, the Wisconsin legislature is debating an initiative that would create a body to prescribe remedies for violating victims' rights laws. The measure -- enabling legislation for Wisconsin's 1993 victims' rights constitutional amendment -- would create a crime victims' rights board to review complaints made to the Victim Resource Center after its officials have completed their investigation. In the version of the bill being discussed currently, remedies this board could invoke include: issuing private or public reprimand of public officials or agencies; referring violations by judges to the judicial oversight commission; seeking appropriate equitable relief on behalf of the victim; or bringing civil suit to assess a forfeiture of no more than $1,000 if an agency is found to have intentionally violated a victim's rights.
Most criminal justice practitioners, victims' advocates, and DOJ officials emphasize that the pending enabling legislation will clarify and further define victims' rights and services, allowing them to achieve a higher, more sophisticated level. Although the executive director of the Victim Resource Center is hopeful she can maintain her role as troubleshooter, affecting change in a quiet and nonbureaucratic way, she and other OCVS officials welcome the enabling legislation as a means to formalize the provision of victims' rights and services in the state.
Suggestions for Replication
The creation of a victims' rights compliance enforcement function affords state policymakers and administrators an opportunity to review and reassess the status of victims' rights implementation, as well as the current delivery of victims' services in the state. An analysis of this sort may allow officials to assess how a compliance enforcement mechanism will interrelate with current service delivery systems.
When state officials begin planning victims' rights compliance enforcement mechanisms, they may want to consider the following:
This bulletin is a summary of a report entitled, Victims' Rights Compliance Efforts: Experiences in Three States, developed by the National Criminal Justice Association under Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) cooperative agreement 97-VF-GX-K012. For copies of the full report, contact the OVC Resource Center at 800-627-6872, or e-mail askncjrs.ncjrs.gov and ask for NCJ 168099. You may also obtain a copy of the report by visiting the OVC home page located at:
- which agency, individual, or body will accept accountability for the compliance effort;
- what type of system -- a strong state presence or a decentralized board or committee-driven structure --will work most effectively within the current political context of the state;
- what will be the role and support of other groups active on victims' issues, including various state and local victims' advocacy groups and victims' service providers, as well as criminal justice practitioners who have been active in incorporating the concerns of victims in their daily practice;
- whether it is appropriate or viable to create remedies for agency violation of victims' rights laws, to identify the scope and circumstances that would trigger remedies, whom and/or what may prescribe them, and if changes to current constitutional and/or statutory language are necessary to reflect these remedies;
- whether the creation of a victims' rights compliance system is viable under current budget constraints;
- what, if any, alternative functions and responsibilities a victims' rights compliance program should under take, such as providing direct counseling to victims or training and technical assistance to promote victims' rights outreach and education; and
- how evaluation tools and techniques can be built into the liaison program successfully.
Points of view in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.