X. Victims’ Rights

Over the last two decades, the victim has begun to take a much more prominent role in the criminal justice process. One achievement is the victim impact statement (VIS), which is a way for the victim to communicate to the court what impact the victimization has had upon his or her life. The VIS is an opportunity for victims to describe emotional and financial costs they have incurred and voice their opinion as to what the appropriate punishment should be. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court first addressed the issue of the VIS in capital cases. In the case of Booth v. Maryland, the court ruled that a VIS could not be shown to a jury in a capital case; in 1991, in the case of Payne v. Tennessee, the court reversed this decision to allow jurors to consider the VIS in its decision making.

There have been unsuccessful attempts to add a Victims’ Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee victims certain rights as victims participate in the criminal justice system. Amendments to state constitutions to include Victims’ Rights Amendments have, however, been successful, with 33 states having such amendments. There has also been victims’ rights legislation passed at federal and state levels since 1974, such as the 1996 Community Notification Act, also known as Megan’s Law, requiring sex offender registration and community notification; the 2003 launch of the Amber Alert system; and the 2004 Justice for All Act, which grants rights to crime victims.

XI. Victim Assistance

Victim assistance takes a wide variety of forms, from large federal government programs to smaller, grassroots efforts. Crime victim compensation programs exist in every state. The eligibility requirement varies across states, but examples of covered costs include medical and mental health expenses; lost wages; and in homicide cases, funeral expenses and loss of support for families. The enactment of the Victims of Crime Act in 1984 established the Crime Victims Fund, which allows state compensation programs to receive federal funding. Passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 secured federal monies for criminal and civil remedies for domestic violence.

The civil courts are an arena in which victims can take action against offenders in an effort to recover damages for their losses. One type of victim assistance mandated by the courts is restitution: the process by which offenders pay back damages to the victim for the injuries received as a result of their victimization. A counterpart to restitution is victim compensation, in which case the state rather than the offender pays the victim for their losses.

Another avenue of assistance available to victims involves emergency aid, such as medical resources and treatment, a national telephone 24-hour crisis hotline where crime victims can obtain advice from trained specialists, and emergency protection or restraining orders. Counseling and advocacy, both short- and long term, and self-help groups are also available to victims.

Throughout the criminal justice process, there are many opportunities for victim assistance. During a criminal investigation, court advocates support victim’s rights, and notification of pretrial release of the accused or input into the bond release decisions can be among the services offered to victims. During prosecution, orientation to the criminal justice system can be offered to the victim, as can consultation in plea bargains, accompaniment to court, and employer intervention services. At sentencing, victims can be notified as to their right to submit a VIS. Postdisposition, the victim can be notified of the court’s decision, submit a VIS for parole hearings, and receive notification of the status of the convicted person.

Peacemaking circles, whereby victim, offender, and their respective support systems and families meet to discuss what happened and how to restore the victim to his or her previctimization position, also have been used.

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