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Victims' Rights: Fulfill the Promise

For over thirty years, our nation has witnessed both a growing awareness of the plight of crime victims and the birth of a profession dedicated to serving crime victims within community-based organizations and the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Across the United States, the past three decades have seen enormous strides in establishing basic rights for crime victims concerning the emotional, physical, and financial needs they experience in the aftermath of crime.

April 6th to 12th is National Crime Victims' Rights Week, a commemorative week for crime victims and those who serve them, first instituted by President Reagan and this year marking it's 23rd anniversary. Each year a theme is selected to highlight some aspect of the ongoing struggle for better services and assistance for victims of crime; this year the theme is "Victims' Rights: Fulfill the Promise."

What is our "promise" to crime victims? And how have we fulfilled, or not fulfilled, that promise?
When the first community-based service programs for crime victims began in the early 1970s, few people were conscious of the plight of crime victims. In the United States, where the U.S. Constitution reigns as the law of the land, we are all familiar with the legal protections accorded the accused — the rights to be informed of their rights; to counsel; to face their accusers; and of course, "innocent until proven guilty." But few people, save those with direct experience, were even faintly aware in those early days of the dearth of protection, services, information, and basic respect accorded to those individuals who were victims of criminal conduct.

The promise dreamed and vigorously pursued by the early pioneers of victim services, and carried out by literally thousands of nameless volunteers and professionals since then, is that victims of crime be accorded the same rights, information, and legal protections that are constitutionally guaranteed to offenders: the promise that victims be treated with the same dignity and respect that we accord to offenders. While not yet fully realized, this promise has seen remarkable progress and achievement over the years.

Today, all states and U.S. Territories have enacted victims' rights statutes that guarantee a range of rights to crime victims, including the rights: to receive information about their rights; of notification about the offender's status and location; to reasonable protection; to submit a victim impact statement detailing the various effects of the crime upon the victim; to restitution from the offender; and, in the case of violent crimes, to be eligible to receive compensation from state victim compensation funds. In addition, 33 states have enacted victims' rights constitutional amendments that strengthen crime victims' rights within the legal system.

A vast network of community-based and system-based professionals and organizations in every state has developed from virtually nothing more than a handful of individuals who dreamed that the promise of equal protection and assistance for crime victims was something that could and should be fulfilled. The burgeoning profession of victim assistance in this country has been built upon years of selfless service by countless individuals, paid and volunteer, who steadfastly and resolutely put one foot in front of the other in a sometimes slow but always steady pursuit of the fulfillment of that promise.

Today there are over 32,000 federal and state laws on the books that define and protect victims' rights, as well as over 10,000 community-based and criminal and juvenile justice system-based organizations dedicated to crime victim assistance.

We have come a long way in fulfilling the promise of guaranteeing the legal rights and comprehensive services that should be afforded every victim of crime. But there is still much that can be done. While both the states and the federal government have done much to guarantee victims' rights and services within our systems of justice, there can be no true guarantee of equal protection until it is provided by the U.S. Constitution. A crime victims' amendment to our Constitution is pending in Congress, and its passage and ratification would be a landmark in the struggle for comprehensive protection for victims of crime.

Another challenge that many states are grappling with is the frequency with which statutorily-guaranteed victims' rights are not enforced, through simple oversight or even ignorance of their existence by public officials charged with their enforcement. Many states have taken bold and dynamic steps to confront this situation and are working "outside the box" to fashion remedies, including the drafting of implementation legislation, streamlining of existing victims' rights laws, and even restructuring and consolidating statewide victims' services and agencies.

The promise that so many heroic individuals nationwide have been working to fulfill for so long is a noble one that hearkens back to the very premises that our country was founded upon: the right to be free and to be treated equally under the law. Crime victims should have these rights; they should not have to fight and endlessly plead with and remind those in positions of power that these rights, in some cases are, and in other cases should be, theirs.

Our country, and thousands of individuals and families, suffered an unprecedented and horrific loss on September 11, 2001. But it was also a wake-up call to the utter devastation of victimization and its impact on individuals, communities, and our nation as a whole. And it was a demonstration of what this country can accomplish when we pull together to assist those among us who have been victimized by the evil deeds of others.

National Crime Victims' Rights Week is a time for us to reflect upon the direction we are headed, as individuals and as a nation, to assist those who are victimized by crime. It is a good time to take a good, hard look at the promise we owe crime victims and what more we can do to fulfill that promise.

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National Crime Victims' Rights Week: Fulfill the Promise April 6–12, 2003
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