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Victims' Rights - Goals And Successes

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The victims' rights movement cannot be understood without noting the reactions of individual victims, whose specific stories are a powerful part of the movement's message. These stories involve insensitivity and mistreatment–"a second victimization"–by the criminal justice system and a complaint that the system is designed to protect the perpetrator rather than the innocent victim. The leaders of the movement and those who fill its ranks are generally individuals who have suffered incredible tragedies through crime victimization. They demand respect and dignity from the criminal justice system. They want full participation in, and sometime control over, its processes. They often need financial support and other services. Many of them seek an outcome for perpetrators that is harsh, but there are elements of the movement that advance the goal of restorative justice. Frequently, victims appear to join the movement in hopes of bringing systemic change from their personal tragedy and thereby giving some meaning to that tragedy.

The successes of the movement are impressive. The one that is the most pervasive, and perhaps the most difficult to document fully, is the increased level of respect and dignity given to victims in the criminal justice system. Until the rise of the victims' movement, victims were relatively ignored in most court systems by the professionals who process criminal cases. Victims were sometimes important witnesses, but little more, and the demands of victims were often seen as an inconvenience. The movement has changed much of that picture. As the century ends, prosecutors' offices in most jurisdictions spend far greater time than they did twenty years earlier giving notice to victims and consulting with them about decisions in their case. Victim/witness coordinators and advocates are a part of the staff of many prosecutors' offices and court systems. They are charged with the general responsibility of shepherding victims through the intricacies of the criminal justice system. For example, they provide notice of proceedings, explain the system's operation, and help secure protection for threatened victims and services and compensation for those who have suffered harm. Laws have been changed to allow victims to be present throughout trials in a number of jurisdictions. Victims' information or their direct voices are heard in court, particularly at sentencing, and frequently at the time guilty pleas are received. In sum, both in giving greater respect and dignity to victims and in honoring their participatory interests, great strides were made during the 1980s and 1990s.

Success has occurred in terms of achieving the basic rights to restitution from defendants and to compensation from governmental funds. Beginning in the 1980s, most jurisdictions enacted laws that provide these benefits. Despite the creation of programs that provide benefits, the issue of restitution remains problematic. Most defendants have few financial resources to provide in restitution, and many governmental compensation programs, which are often tied to revenues from the criminal justice system, are inadequately funded.

The impact of victims' groups can be seen in many of the other changes in the criminal justice system in the 1980s and 1990s. Rape shield laws, which restrict access to and use of the sexual history of rape victims, have been broadly enacted to encourage victims to come forward. Similarly, young victims of crime are often able to testify outside the presence of the accused. Community notification laws regarding the release of sex offenders, called Megan's law in memory of a child-victim of predatory violence, have been enacted under federal encouragement across the nation. Mandatory arrest and prosecution laws have been implemented in many jurisdictions for domestic violence cases because of the belief that such policies reduce such violence. These are just a few of the laws relating directly to the treatment of victims or potential victims that have been enacted through the advocacy of particular victims' groups. Somewhat related is the broad acceptance of "battered woman syndrome" evidence to support the defense of abused women who resort to self-help violence.

Changes in criminal law enforcement have made conviction more likely and punishment harsher, but some question whether such changes properly relate to victims' rights and whether they are wise. Many of these changes have been labeled by their supporters as part of victims' rights, and victims' groups have often been important to their passage. Tougher drunk driving laws represent one of the clearest example of the impact of victims' groups. Other changes less directly related to the interests of any particular victims' group include preventive detention laws, mandatory sentencing provisions (e.g., mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws), and the abolition of parole. One significant feature associated with the rise of the conservative political component of the victims' rights movement is the role of victims, particularly victims of notorious crimes, in giving tragedy a human face for the public and spearheading a push for tougher law-and-order enactments.

The successes of the movement have been substantial across all three of the interests identified at the outset of this entry, although providing the financial and other services for victims remains problematic. Some argue that a conflict exists between the emphasis on tough crime control goals that focus on punishing defendants and success in securing resources for victims.

The new concentration on victims has been a contributing factor to a growing interest in exploring alternative ways of settling criminal cases. Viewing victims' interests as central to the criminal case means that mediation efforts are sometimes seen as reasonable alternatives to governmental prosecutions, particularly for minor crimes and crimes involving victims and perpetrators from the same community. Mediation efforts are controversial with some victim advocates because of the required contact between victims and those who did them harm, and the pressure placed on victims to compromise. Some victims' groups have pushed even beyond mediation for understanding and healing between victims and perpetrators in a movement called restorative justice, which presents an interesting alternative to traditional prosecution and dovetails with some communitarian justice movements. Here, too, the greatest likelihood of success exists in minor criminal cases, and perhaps juvenile delinquency matters.

Victims' Rights - Victim Impact Statements [next] [back] Victims' Rights - Origins Of The Movement

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