The victims’ rights movement refers to the convergence of events and social movements that resulted in efforts to change social and legal policies that were harmful to victims of crime and to create new policies that acknowledged the impact of crime on individuals and their families. These policies created new services for crime victims to help them recover from the aftermath of crime and to involve them in the criminal justice system proceedings to successfully pursue and prosecute the perpetrators of crime.
The idea that victims of crime are entitled to certain rights has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (2000 BC). The Code of Hammurabi set forth rules regarding the role of the state in holding offenders responsible for their behavior and the restoration of persons who had been wronged by a crime. The code also addressed rules regarding interpersonal violence, including the rights and duties of married couples and children. At the core of these rules was the notion that weaker individuals should be protected from stronger persons.
Early Roman law, the Judeo-Christian Bible, and English law including common law and Magna Carta also provided guidelines regarding the rights of victims to seek compensation or revenge for personal wrongs committed against them. Over the centuries, as governments codified crimes and punishments, the notion of personal wrongs became transformed into crimes against the state. In this paradigm, the role of the victim became secondary to the pursuit of punishment by the state.
The Modern Movement
The modern victims’ rights movement was influenced by the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s with their emphasis on drawing public attention to marginalized populations and questioning unjust policies of the government. However, it was the rising crime rates in the 1960s, the feminist movement’s attention to the issue of violence against women, early victim compensation programs, and political activism by victims that led more directly to the victims’ rights movement.
Rising Crime Rates
A rise in crime rates in the 1960s sparked a “get tough on crime” attitude by politicians and the general public. In what can also be called the law and order movement, the criminal justice system, state and federal policymakers, and victim advocacy groups worked together to increase penalties for offenders. The treatment of crime victims by the criminal justice system also came under scrutiny. Early crime victimization studies identified a large gap between the number of crimes reported to police and the number of self identified crime victims. The often insensitive treatment of crime victims and witnesses by police, prosecutors, and judges was a major reason why victims were reluctant to ask law enforcement for help or to participate in prosecution. Law enforcement and prosecutors also began to recognize that addressing victims’ problems resulting from the crime may increase victims’ cooperation, thereby increasing the quality of evidence needed for successful prosecution.
The Feminist Movement
The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s drew attention to the crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence. Law enforcement and prosecutors often did not take these crimes seriously and often blamed the victims for abuse. In 1972, the first community-based programs—rape crisis centers— were opened. In 1976, the National Organization for Women established a task force on battered wives, thus initiating the battered women’s movement. The feminist movement is credited with laws protecting the rights of sexually and physically assaulted women and the development of rape crisis programs and shelters for abused women and their children.
Early Crime Victim Compensation Programs
In 1965, California was the first state to establish a victim compensation program. Within 5 years, five additional programs were established in New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, and the Virgin Islands. These programs recognized that victims also bear financial consequences of crime and provided reimbursement for some of their expenses. Today, all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have funded compensation programs. A special victim compensation program was developed in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Political Activism By Crime Victims
In addition to the community-based advocacy fueled by the feminist movement, other groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Parents of Murdered Children, and the National Organization of Victim Assistance, advocated for local, state, and federal policy changes. Law enforcement and prosecutor based victim assistance programs were developed to assist crime victims in coping with the aftermath of crime and to participate in the criminal justice process.
The victims’ rights movement has amassed an impressive resume of accomplishments, including both state and federal laws, ongoing public education efforts, and funding to support community-based and institution based programs and services.
In 1982, recommendations of the federal Task Force on Victims of Crime provided the foundation for the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), passed 2 years later. This act provided funding to qualified victim assistance programs and for state crime victim compensation programs. Congress amended the Victims of Crime Act in 1988 to establish the Office for Victims of Crime located in the U.S. Department of Justice. This office administers the grant programs, provides training and technical assistance to local and state programs, and sponsors an annual Crime Victims’ Rights Week and Crime Victim Academies for advocate training.
In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed (and reauthorized in 2000 and 2006), providing federal funding for shelters for battered women, sexual assault programs, and a variety of other measures to combat violence against women. Other accomplishments include victim-witness notification systems at federal, state, and local levels; funding for programs in Indian country and for special populations such as elders and persons with disabilities; hate crime and ant stalking legislation; campus sexual assault reporting requirements; sex offender registries; and community mobilization programs via Megan’s Law.
All 50 states have passed legislation establishing victim rights, and 33 states have passed constitutional amendments requiring the provision of certain services to crime victims. Although the rights of crime victims may differ from state to state, there are four basic types of rights: (1) the right to notification of various aspects of the stages of criminal justice proceedings, including arrest, prosecution, parole, and release; (2) the right to be present at the trial; (3) the right to be heard through victim impact statements and when bail is being set; and (4) the right to restitution from the offender and to compensation for expenses incurred as a result of the crime.
One of the most controversial issues is an attempt to pass a federal victim rights constitutional amendment. Proponents of a constitutional amendment argue that persons charged with a crime have federally protected constitutional rights, while victims have rights protected by individual states. As federal law supersedes state law, they argue that federal constitutional rights are needed to establish parity between the rights of the victim and the rights of the accused. However, the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women and other groups oppose this constitutional amendment. An unintended consequence of fighting back in self-defense is the arrest of abused women. Abusive partners may use their special status as “victims” to further manipulate the system to keep women in jail and from their children. Groups who oppose the proposed constitutional amendment believe the state level initiatives are better suited to address the complexity of problems that result from a lack of parity between the rights of victims and the accused.
Another controversial issue facing the victims’ right movement is the death penalty. While victim rights organizations have often advocated for increased penalties for crimes against persons, support for the death penalty is not universal. Although the families of some homicide victims support the death penalty, others, including the group Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, actively oppose the death penalty. Families opposed to the death penalty have complained that prosecutors do not actively involve them in the murder trials and especially in the penalty phase when a successful conviction has been won.
The victims’ rights movement is faced with myriad challenges influencing its future directions. These challenges include differential responses to victims by the criminal justice system with regard to race and ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, and (dis)ability. There is also a lack of consistency across local, state, and federal jurisdictions with respect to implementing victims’ rights. Some believe that one way to address this lack of consistency is to develop standards for victim assistance programs. Although research has focused on the mental health trauma associated with violent crime, research into pathways to resiliency for crime victims has received less attention. More research exploring linkages between mental health outcomes and victim rights is also needed.
- Walker, S. D., & Kilpatrick, D. G. (2002). Chapter 1: Scope of crime/historical review of the victims’ rights discipline. In A. Seymour, M. Murray, J. Sigmon, M. Hook, C. Edmunds, M. Gaboury, et al. (Eds.), National Victim Assistance Academy textbook. Victims’ Assistance Legal Organization. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/nvaa2001/chapter1.html
- Young, M., & Stein, J. (2004). The history of the crime victims’ movement in the United States: A component of the Office for Victims of Crime Oral History Project. Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/ncvrw/2005/pdf/historyofcrime.pdf
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