Sample Opinion/Editorial Column
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,
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 612, 2003