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Victims' Rights - Origins Of The Movement

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The motivating force behind a movement that centers on the interests of victims in the criminal justice system has both liberal and conservative roots. Beginning in the 1960s, women's groups and feminists focused on the plight of rape victims. They brought attention to outmoded laws and attitudes toward rape and to the insensitivity of police, prosecutors, and the court system to rape victims. Their target also included lenient treatment of defendants. Later some of these same groups focused on battered women generally as victims, but sometimes as defendants when they responded to battering with self-help violence. Related efforts addressed systemic insensitivity to child abuse, particularly to sexual abuse of children. The leaders of this agenda were predominantly progressive, and they principally attacked conservative attitudes and laws.

A second component of the modern victims' rights movement sprang from conservative roots. In the 1960s the U.S. Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, articulated procedural protections for defendants that were grounded in the Bill of Rights. This emphasis on the rights of defendants created resentment in many parts of American society, particularly with some crime victims. The rising crime rate over most of the next thirty years, together with the general rejection of much of liberal thinking regarding the treatment of criminals, such as the declining faith in rehabilitation, deepened those resentments. Victims took for themselves the language of rights that the Warren Court had championed for defendants and argued that such rights were needed to counterbalance the Court's mistakes and excesses and its resulting failures to curb the crime epidemic. Critics were reacting to the perceived failures of liberal treatment of crime and often sought the correction of a perceived imbalance in the criminal justice system that was seen as favoring criminals.

With these roots, the current formulation of much of the victims' rights movement began to take shape in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the founding of several important grassroots victim organizations, such as Parents of Murdered Children and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Although having goals similar to those of the broadly focused women's groups that spearheaded the efforts to change rape laws, these organizations were more narrowly concerned with the impact of crime and the criminal justice system.

The movement was given critical shape and a conservative political focus when President Ronald Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese convened the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime in 1982. Many beneficial programs and services for victims ultimately flowed from that organizing effort, but an important consequence was to bring victims prominently into the criminal justice debate both as allies and as symbols for law-and-order practices. The effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to grant rights to victims of crime began with the report of the task force.

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