It's National Crime Victims' Rights Week, a time for people across Americain communities large and small, urban and ruralto honor those who have been hurt by crime, and to celebrate the many successes of the victims' rights discipline in the United States. It is, indeed, a time for optimism:
It is a time for optimism built upon a solid record of accomplishment for victims of crime and those who serve them. As we reflect on the theme of this year's commemoration"Victims' Rights: Reach for the Stars"we reflect, too, on the progress that has been made in the past thirty years. Helen Keller once said, "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." Our field has, for years, consisted of eternal optimistsactivists who wouldn't take "no" for an answer when victims' rights and dignity were at stake; who believed that victim safety, information, and involvement could provide a strong foundation for our pursuit of justice and offender accountability; who thought, as homicide victim Stephanie Roper said, "One person can make a difference, and every one should try."
It was not too far in the distant past when "victims' rights" were considered by many to be an oxymoron. A quarter century ago, most courtroom doors were shut to victims, their voices unheard, their pleas for information unanswered. There were no victim assistance programs in the juvenile justice system, and community-based victim assistance groups struggled to keep their doors open, operating off of kitchen tables on shoestring budgets. Domestic violence was considered merely a "family matter." Rape victims were often blamed for the violence they endured. Crimes against vulnerable populationschildren, the elderly, and persons with disabilitieswere seldom discussed. And drunk driving was not even considered to be a crime. What the pioneers of our field did was put a face on individual victims, encourage their voices to be heard, and give reality to the crimes they endured.
The year 2001 marks a special anniversary25 years since the first victim impact statement was heard in Fresno County, California. In reflecting on the impetus of this core victims' right, then-Chief Probation Officer James Rowland observed that "victims of crime received no services, were isolated from the justice system, and were seldom provided with any information unless they were needed as a witness. I also learned that except for law enforcement officers, criminal justice practitionersincluding judgesseldom had an opportunity to learn about the short- or long-term impact of crime on victims and their families." Rowland credits the emergence of victim impact statements to a collaborative effort involving not only his agency, but a judge, public defender, and faith community representativean important partnership that has resulted in "the voice of the victim" being heard in criminal and juvenile courts, by paroling authorities, and by offenders through the use of victim impact panels and victim awareness classes.
In reaching for the stars of safety and justice, crime victims and their advocates have helped not only individuals touched by crime, but entire communities as a whole. We have provided impetus for greater focus on early interventions and crime prevention that result in fewer victimizations. We have shed light on the considerable needs of victims of juvenile offenders in a system that traditionally excluded them. We have begun to convince communities that they have a critical stake and important role in justicethat their involvement as volunteers for victims, as mentors for at-risk youth and juvenile offenders, and as members of neighborhood safety initiatives can contribute to the safety and well-being of their homes and neighborhoods.
Yes, crime is down, but for the seven-and-a-half million violent crime victims and 21 million property crime victims last year, these optimistic statistics don't mean much. It is their many needs and rights that we must recommit our individual and collective energies to address. It is their faces we must, ourselves, face with empathy and understanding. It is their voices we must amplify with our own, seeking justice for them, and comprehensive, supportive services to meet their many needs.
Here in [community/state], we continue our efforts to reach for the stars of safety and justice for victims and all community members. [Here, describe innovative victim assistance programs, collaborative community initiatives, or new victims' rights laws that are relevant to your specific audience].
The Spanish poet Jose Marti once said, "People are like the stars; some generate their own light, while others reflect the brilliance they receive. " Not a day goes by in [community] without that "light" being generated: by the police officer who responds sensitively to a battered woman; by prosecutors who continually object to tactics that "blame the victim;" by the judge who ensures that the victim's voice is heard before sentencing decisions are made; by probation officers who consider victims to be their "clients" and for whom "offender accountability" is not simply rhetoric, but reality. This bright light is generated also by victim advocates who dedicate their lives to helping those who are hurt by crime, who themselves endure many sacrifices in order to better serve victims; and by community members and volunteers who make justice, and safety their business. The "brilliance" Marti describes is, indeed, reflected in the lives of crime victims, for whom a helping hand can lead to healing of the mind, body, and spirit.
This week, we celebrate our accomplishments, ever mindful of the other fifty-one weeks of the year during which our commitment and resolve remain vital to victims' rights and services. So as we reach for the stars of safety and justice for all, let us be mindful of the need, as James Rowland once said, to not rest on our laurels "until victims' rights are not just celebrated annually, but practiced daily."