Everybody knows that the accused have rights under our legal system. But what rights do crime victims have? And what if their rights are not enforced?
Imagine that your neighbor is attacked by a group of armed robbers while walking home from work one evening. All his valuables are stolen, and he spends weeks in hospital recovering from a severe beating. His insurance won't cover all the medical bills that are piling up.
While his assailants obtain court-appointed attorneys after their arrest, your neighbor is left in the dark about his rights as a crime victim—which include the right to apply for access to crime victim compensation that could help pay his medical and counseling bills. He doesn't even receive official notice about the progress of the court case—including the fact that his attackers were released on bail and that the prosecutor is in the midst of plea bargaining.
Although not all U.S. crime victims face so many challenges, your hypothetical neighbor's situation is not unusual.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans every year find themselves in similar situations. The 18.7 million crimes committed in the U.S. in 2010 included almost three million assaults and one-half million robberies, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.
Victims pay a high percentage of the staggering costs associated with all crimes—in property loss, pain and suffering, and medical and mental healthcare fees.
And they often learn too late that they have rights.
While every state in the nation has passed victims' rights laws, and 32 states have constitutional victims' rights amendments, victims usually have little recourse when authorities ignore these rights.
Although rights vary among jurisdictions, they may include (usually for victims of felonies and violent misdemeanors) the right to attend criminal proceedings, to be notified about changes in the offender's status, to make an impact statement at sentencing, and to be consulted (or at least notified) by the prosecutor when a plea is being considered.
Although all states have crime victim compensation programs, these programs usually pay an average maximum benefit of $25,000. Victims with serious injuries and inadequate insurance coverage may find themselves deeply in debt as a result of a crime.
And in many states, victims of non-violent crimes, including financial fraud, are not eligible for any compensation.
Victims who are not informed about court proceedings or changes in offenders' status are effectively denied those rights—and may even be endangered if they do not know that the offender has been released into the community.
Although most states grant victims the right to be heard at sentencing, victims can't assert that right when there is no sentencing hearing because the case has been settled by a plea. And when prosecutors fail to notify or consult with victims, victims have no official means to express their views on crimes that may have devastated their lives.
In such instances, they may feel as victimized by the criminal justice system as by the criminal.
Finally, victims often receive no information about services available to counsel them, help them negotiate the criminal justice system, and refer them to other needed services. The federal Crime Victims Fund, established under the 1984 Victims of Crime Act, provides grant funding to all states, which in turn fund agencies that provide direct support to victims in all states.
Although the Office for Victims of Crime at the U.S. Department of Justice lists more than 10,000 agencies in its victim services in its directory, as few as 4 percent of victims find their way to available help. And many of these agencies are struggling to keep their doors open in these financially challenging times.
National Crime Victims' Rights Week, observed April 22–28 this year, sounds an annual alarm about these challenges. Its theme—”Extending the Vision: Reaching Every Victim”—aims to awaken concern for victims and engage the nation in achieving true justice for all who are harmed by crime.
Victims need and deserve a comprehensive, consistent set of laws to ensure their rights to attend and be heard at criminal justice proceedings,
They deserve to be informed of significant events in their cases, and to be protected from intimidation. They should have the right to seek appropriate compensation and restitution; to prompt return of personal property, to a speedy trial, and to enforcement of all these rights.
They deserve to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect throughout the entire criminal justice process. They should be able to receive the services they need to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of crime.
Although we have made great progress since the time when victims had no rights, we still have a long way to go.
That is why we need National Crime Victims' Rights Week—and why we hope you will join us in working to advance its mission this week, and throughout the year.
Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. She welcomes comments from readers.