1997 Academy Text Supplement
History and Overview of the
"This year, we can take one more historic step to ensure that victims throughout
the country are guaranteed the fundamental rights to be present, to be informed
of significant developments in their cases and of their rights, and to be heard at
sentencing and other appropriate times throughout the criminal justice process.
The Congress should pass a Victims' Rights Amendment to the United States
Constitution that will, when ratified by the States, ensure that crime victims are
at the center of the criminal justice process, not on the outside looking in."
President William Jefferson Clinton
1997 National Crime Victims' Rights Week Proclamation
Significant Landmarks Over the Past Year
In 1996 and early 1997, significant developments occurred on the national and state levels with
respect to victims' rights constitutional amendments, federal legislation, expansion of Victims
of Crime Act fund collections, and the creation of national programs affecting crime victims.
Victims' Rights Constitutional Amendments
- In the spring of 1996, bi-partisan federal victims' rights constitutional amendments were
introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The amendment
was re-introduced in the Senate in the opening days of the 105th Congress in January of
1997. Hearings have been held in Congress on the Federal Constitutional Amendment
in 1996 and 1997.
- During the 1996 elections, both presidential candidates endorsed the concept of a federal
Victims' Rights Constitutional Amendment.
- United States Attorney General Janet Reno also endorsed the concept of a federal
Victims' Rights Constitutional Amendment in 1996.
- In the November elections of 1996, eight states ratified the passage of state-level
constitutional amendments -- raising the total number of state constitutional amendments
to 29 nationwide.
- In 1996, the Congress passed 'Megan's Law' -- the Community Notification Act -- as an
amendment to the national Child Sexual Abuse Registry legislation. This new law
provides for notification of local communities of the location of convicted sex offenders.
President Clinton stated in his 1997 National Crime Victims' Rights Week Proclamation
that: "With community notification, we are working to prevent cases like that of the
Act's namesake, Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old who died at the hands of a repeat sex
offender released into an unsuspecting community."
- In 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was enacted that provided
one million dollars in funding to strengthen antiterrorism efforts. In addition, restitution
was made mandatory in federal violent crime cases; and compensation and victim
assistance services for victims of terrorism both at home and abroad, including victims
in the military, were expanded.
- As a result of the passage of the Antiterrorism Act and Effective Death Penalty Act, the
Office for Victims of Crime was able to use its new authority under the Act to provide
substantial financial assistance to the victims and survivors of the Oklahoma City
- The Victims' Rights Clarification Act of 1997 was enacted to give further assurance to
the right of victims of crime to attend and observe the trials of those accused of the
crime. The Act passed through Congress at an historic speed as the result of a ruling by
the U.S. District Judge presiding over the Oklahoma City bombing case. The ruling
would have excluded victims and survivors from observing the proceedings in Denver
or on closed circuit television in Oklahoma City if they were planning to give victim
impact statements during the sentencing phase. A detailed description of the Act is
provided at the end of this section.
Federal Crime Victims Fund
- In 1996, deposits in the federal Crime Victims Fund reached an all-time high -- totaling
over $500 million available for state crime victim compensation, local victim assistance
programs, national training and technical assistance, and federal victim assistance. As
a result of this landmark increase in fund collections, in 1997 states will receive more
than three times as much in federal funds as they have in any previous year.
- In January of 1997, the Office for Victims of Crime hosted a series of regional meetings
with state VOCA administrators to encourage states to develop multi-year funding
strategies to: help stabilize local victim assistance program funding; encourage states to
provide funding for programs that serve previously underserved crime victims; and
encourage the use of technologies to improve victims' rights and services.
- To fully recognize the sovereignty of Indian Nations, the Office for Victims of Crime for
the first time provided all discretionary VOCA Victim Assistance in Indian Country
(VAIC) grants directly to tribes.
- In September 1996, the President directed the National Safety Transportation Board
(NTSB) to coordinate the roles of the Department of Justice, Defense, State, and other
federal agencies with responsibilities for victim services following the tragic explosion
of TWA flight 800 and the Valuejet crash in Miami, Florida. Subsequently, Congress
passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, establishing the
responsibility of NTSB in all domestic aviation disasters as "a point of contact within the
Federal Government for the families of passengers involved in the accident and a liaison
between the air carrier...and the families." (Title VII of Public Law 104-264. Cong. Rec. H11303)
- Because of its history of advocacy on behalf of crime victims and its early work with
survivors of airline crashes, the Attorney General designated OVC as the lead agency
within DOJ to work with NTSB on a coordinated government protocol for aviation
disasters. In conjunction with other DOJ components, including the FBI, OVC
developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to ensure that the needs of victims
and their survivors are addressed in a sensitive and appropriate manner in the event of
an aviation disaster resulting from criminal activity. It was signed by the Attorney
General and the NTSB Chair and became effective on January 28, 1997. It is the first
step in developing a coordinated government response to aviation disasters.
Other Significant Developments
- In February of 1996, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-SAFE), was
established to provide crisis intervention information and assistance to victims of
domestic violence. The new hotline was cited in the President's 1997 National Crime
Victims' Rights Week Proclamation as having already responded to more than 73,000
calls for assistance from around the country.
- The Office for Victims of Crime launched a number of international crime victim
initiatives in 1996, including working to foster worldwide implementation of a United
Nations declaration on victims' rights and initiatives to better assist Americans who are
- As stated in the President's 1997 National Crime Victims' Rights Week Proclamation,
as of April 1997, the Brady Bill has prevented over 225,000 felons, fugitives, and stalkers
from buying handguns.
The Victims' Rights Clarification Act of 1997
"Two of the most important rights that Congress can safeguard for crime victims
is the right to witness the trial of the accused and the right to be heard in
connection with the sentencing decision."
Senator Patrick Leahy, March 20, 1997
In March of 1997, just weeks before the scheduled start of the Oklahoma City bombing trial, a
ruling by the presiding U.S. District Court judge excluded victims and survivors from observing
the proceedings in Denver or on closed-circuit television in Oklahoma City, if they were
planning to give victim impact testimony during the sentencing phase of the case. In what most
lawmakers and seasoned public policy experts have said clocked 'historic speed' in the passage
of a federal law, Congress rushed to pass the Victims Rights Clarification Act of 1997, in time
for President Clinton to sign just minutes before leaving the country for Helsinki, Finland for a
summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Although existing federal law allowed for both victim impact statements during sentencing
hearings and the right of victims to attend the trial of a defendant accused of offenses against
them, the federal judge's rule would have sequestered victims who planned on being "impact
witnesses" during the sentencing phase.
Senator Don Nickles from Oklahoma summarized the immediate need for the Act's passage:
"Congress thought it already had adopted provisions precluding such sequestration in the
Victims' Bill of Rights. This bill clarifies the pre-existing law so it is indisputable that district
courts cannot deny victims and surviving family members the opportunity to watch the trial
merely because they will provide information during the sentencing phase of the proceedings."
("Law Sets Bomb Victims, Families Free to Testify, View Trials," Daily Oklahoman, March 20, 1997)
Language in the Victims Rights Clarification Act of 1997 states that it "shall apply in cases
pending on the date of the enactment of this Act." At the time of its passage, questions were
raised concerning the issue of whether the law might violate the constitutional separation of
powers by having the legislative branch direct how judges in the judicial branch manage their
courtrooms. Senator Nickles countered this potential problem by stating: "This bill applies to
all pending cases and in no way singles out a case for unique or special treatment. Rather, a
serious problem has come to light, and Congress has responded by clarifying the applicable
federal law across the country from this day forward." (Ibid.)
Specifically, the Act amends Chapter 223 of Title 18 of the United States Code by adding the
following new language in Section 3510 -- Rights of Victims to Attend and Observe the Trial:
- Non-Capital cases: "Notwithstanding any statute, rule, or other provision of law,
a United States district court shall not order any victim of an offense excluded
from the trial of a defendant accused of that offense because such victim may,
during the sentencing hearing, make a statement or present any information in
relation to the sentence.
- Capital cases: "Notwithstanding any statute, rule, or other provision of law, a
United States district court shall not order any victim of an offense excluded from
the trial of a defendant accused of that offense because such victim may, during
the sentencing hearing, testify as to the effect of the offense on the victim and the
victim's family or as to any other factor for which notice is required under
- Clarification of Grounds for Exclusion: Section 3593(c) of title 18, United
States Code, is amended by inserting "For the purposes of the preceding
sentence, the fact that the victim, as defined in 3510, attended or observed the
trial shall not be construed to pose a danger of creating unfair prejudice,
confusing the issues, or misleading the jury." (Title 18, Chapter 223, United States
Code, as amended by the Victims Rights Clarification Act of 1997. See Section 3510: Rights of
Victims to Attend and Observe Trial)
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