The Crime Victims' Rights Movement in the United States is founded on the idea that, during the late modern period (1800-1970), the American justice system strayed too far from its victim-centric origins. Since the 1970s, the movement has worked to give victims a more meaningful role in criminal proceedings, aiming at the inclusion of "the individual victim as a legally recognized participant with rights, interests, and voice."
During the colonial and revolutionary periods, the United States criminal justice system was "victim-centric," in that crimes were often investigated and prosecuted by individual victims. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the focus shifted so that crime was seen primarily as a "social harm." The criminal justice system came to be seen as a tool for remedying this social harm, rather than an avenue for redress of personal harm, and the role of the victim in criminal proceedings was drastically reduced.
The modern Crime Victims' Rights Movement began in the 1970s. It began, in part, as a response to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Linda R.S. v. Richard D. (410 U.S. 614). In Linda R.S., the Court ruled that the complainant did not have the legal standing to keep the prosecutors' office from discriminately applying a statute criminalizing non-payment of child support. In dicta, the court articulated the then-prevailing view that a crime victim cannot compel a criminal prosecution because "a private citizen lacks a judicially cognizable interest in the prosecution or non-prosecution of another." This ruling served as a high-water mark in the shift away from the victim-centric approach to criminal justice, making it clear that victims in the 1970s had "no formal legal status beyond that of a witness or piece of evidence."
If the Linda R.S. Ruling was a clear representation of the problem of victim exclusion, it also hinted at a solution to the problem. The Court stated that Congress could "enact statutes creating victims' rights, the invasion of which creates standing, even though no injury would exist without the statute." With this statement, the Court provided a legal foundation for victims' rights legislation.
Along with these legal developments, there was a concurrent growth in social consciousness about victims' rights. This was due, in part, to the fact that concern for the fair treatment of victims provided a nexus between disparate, but powerful, social movements. The law and order Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the feminist movement all challenged the criminal justice system to think more carefully about the role of the victim in criminal proceedings. Supporters of these causes helped form the grassroots foundation of the modern Victims' Rights Movement, providing educational resources and legal assistance, and establishing the country's first hotlines and shelters for victims of crime.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan's Task Force on Victims of Crime released its final report which detailed the concerns of victims' rights advocates, claiming that "the innocent victims of crime have been overlooked, their pleas for justice have gone unheeded, and their wounds - personal, emotional, financial - have gone unattended." The report contained 68 recommendations for service providers and government officials, many of which are mandated through victims' rights legislation today. The report included a recommendation for a victims' rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the decades that followed, proponents of victims' rights experienced substantial legislative success. Today, the Victims' Rights Movement continues to promote legislation that guarantees substantive rights for victims, and provides the procedural mechanisms to effectively enforce those rights. Victims' rights organizations also do ground-level advocacy, providing individual victims with legal guidance and support, and educate future legal professionals on issues related to victims' rights.
Victims' rights legislation
Since 1982, thirty-three states have amended their constitutions to address victims' rights, and all states have passed victims' rights legislation. That same year, Congress passed the first piece of federal crime victims' rights legislation, the Victim and Witness Protection Act. In 1984, the Victims of Crime Act was passed. A decade later, in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act became law. In 2004, the landmark Crime Victims' Rights Act was passed, granting crime victims eight specific rights, and providing standing for individual victims to assert those rights in court.
Victims of Crime Act (VOCA)
VOCA established the Crime Victims Fund, which awards grants to crime victim compensation programs, victim notification systems, and victim assistance programs. The Fund is financed by offender fees.
Crime Victims' Rights Act of 2004
The Crime Victims' Rights Act, part of the Justice for All Act of 2004, enumerates the rights afforded to victims in federal criminal cases. The Act grants victims the following rights:
- The right to protection from the accused,
- The right to notification,
- The right not to be excluded from proceedings,
- The right to speak at criminal justice proceedings,
- The right to consult with the prosecuting attorney,
- The right to restitution,
- The right to a proceedings free from unreasonable delay,
- The right to be treated with fairness, and respect for the victims' dignity and privacy
The Crime Victims' Rights Act was named for Scott Campbell, Stephanie Roper, Wendy Preston, Louarna Gillis, and Nila Lynn, murder victims whose families were denied some or all of the rights granted by the Act in the course of their cases.
All states have passed legislation that protects the rights of victims of crime, and most have passed constitutional amendments that afford protection to crime victims. Some state laws apply to only victims of felony offenses, while other states also extend rights to victims of less serious misdemeanor offenses. When a victim is a minor, disabled, or deceased, some states permit family members to exercise rights on behalf of the victim.
Common state law protections include:
- The right to be treated with dignity and respect,
- The right to be informed about the prosecution, plea offers, court proceedings, and sentencing,
- The right to make a statement in court at the time of sentencing,
- The right to protection,
- The right to seek compensation from a state victim's rights fund,
- The right to restitution from the offender,
- The right to return of personal property, and
- The right to be informed of parole proceedings or release from incarceration, and the right to make a statement to the parole board,
- The right to enforcement of victim's rights.
Many prosecuting attorneys' offices have a victim's rights officer or multiple employees who assist victims of crime during and after a prosecution. A crime victim who is seeking compensation or restitution should submit a timely claim for compensation to the probation department or prosecuting attorney, along with documentation in support of the claim, in order to ensure that the amounts are included in a restitution order when the defendant is sentenced.
U.S. victims' rights organizations
National Crime Victim Law Institute
National Crime Victim Law Institute (NCVLI) is a national non-profit legal advocacy organization based at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. The organization was founded in 1997 by Professor Doug Beloof. It seeks to enhance victims' rights through a combination of legal advocacy, training and education, and public policy work. NCVLI also hosts an annual 2-day Crime Victim Law conference, and maintains a Victim Law Library, which contains laws and educational resources related to victims rights.
National Alliance of Victims' Rights Attorneys (NAVRA)
NAVRA is a membership alliance of attorneys and advocates dedicated to the promotion of crime victims' rights. It is a project of the National Crime Victim Law Institute. Membership in NAVRA provides access to expert services for crime victims, including a searchable database of case summaries, amicus briefs, and sample pleadings, as well as a directory of victims' rights professionals.
National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA)
NOVA is a private non-profit organization dedicated to promoting rights and services for victims of crime. Founded in 1975, NOVA is the oldest national victims rights organization. The organization is focused both on national advocacy and on providing direct services to victims.
National Center for Victims of Crime
National Center for Victims of Crime is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that advocates for victims' rights.
Rise is an NGO working to implement a bill of rights for sexual assault victims.