"When someone is a victim, he or she should be at the center of the criminal justice process, not on the outside looking in. Participation in all forms of government is the essence of democracy. Victims should be guaranteed the right to participate in proceedings related to crimes committed against them. People accused of crimes have explicit constitutional rights. Ordinary citizens have a constitutional right to participate in criminal trials by serving on a jury. The press has a constitutional right to attend trials. All of this is as it should be. It is only the victims of crime who have no constitutional right to participate, and that is not the way it should be."
President William Jefferson Clinton
The issue of federal constitutional protection of victims' rights was first raised in the landmark President's Task Force on Victims of Crime Final Report published in 1982. Its authors proposed augmenting the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to provide that ". . . the victim, in every criminal prosecution, shall have the right to be present and to be heard at all critical stages of judicial proceedings."
Prior to the 1998 elections, a total of twenty-nine states had passed state victims' rights constitutional amendments. In the Fall of 1998, the voters in four additional states approved state victims' rights constitutional amendmentsLouisiana, Mississippi, Montana, and Tennessee. Also in 1998, the Oregon Supreme Court overturned that state's victims' rights constitutional amendment, citing structural deficiencies. Thus, with one loss and four gains, a total of thirty-three states have amended their constitutions, but a total of thirty-two states enjoy current constitutional protection for victims, guaranteeing an array of rights, including notification, participation, protection, and input. A handful of states applies these constitutional rights to victims of juvenile as well as adult, offenders.
In April of 1996, and again in the opening session of the new Congress in January of 1997, a Victims' Rights Constitutional Amendment was introduced by Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in the U.S. Senate and by Henry Hyde (R-IL) in the House of Representatives. In June of 1996, President Clinton endorsed the concept of a federal constitutional amendment for crime victims' rights in a special ceremony held at the White House. His moving words are quoted above.
The Judiciary Committees in the Senate and House of Representatives have held hearings on the federal constitutional amendment. Attorney General Janet Reno testified to the need for constitutional rights for crime victims at hearings held in 1997.
On April 1, 1998, Senators Jon Kyl and Dianne Feinstein
introduced a new version of the constitutional amendment, Senate Joint
Resolution 44. In order to gain key Senate Judiciary Committee support,
this new version of the proposed federal Victims' Rights Constitutional
Amendment incorporates two significant language changes to the previous
version: (1) the amendment is limited to victims of violent crime;
and (2) Section 2 now includes language stating that a violation of crime
victims' rights pursuant to the Amendment gives no grounds to overturn
a sentence or negotiated plea agreement. In July 1998, the Senate Judiciary
On January 19, 1999, Senate Joint Resolution 3, identical to SJR 44, was introduced before the 106th Congress. In April 2000, SJR 3 was addressed for the first time by the full U.S. Senate. On April 27, 2000, following two-and-a-half days of debate, SJR 3 was withdrawn for further consideration by its co-sponsors, Senators Kyl and Feinstein, when it became apparent that the measure would not receive a two-thirds majority vote for approval.
The proposed federal Victims' Rights Constitutional Amendment continues to receive strong bipartisan support, as well as support from organizations representing national, state, and local victim services, law enforcement, criminal justice, and community and institutional corrections.
For additional information about the federal constitutional amendment, contact your elected representative. You may also wish to contact:
National Victims' Constitutional Amendment Network