Victims of Crime

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Victims of Crime

Until the 1970s victims of crimes were often forgotten by the criminal justice system. As a result, victims sometimes came to believe that they had fewer rights than the criminals who had injured them. In addition, some victims became so alienated from the criminal justice process that prosecutors had difficulty persuading them to testify at trial. This environment began to change in the 1970s with the establishment of victim compensation funds. Not until the 1980s, however, did a national movement for "victims' rights" spark wholesale changes in the criminal justice system.

Right to Sue

Victims have always had the right to sue for money damages a person who injures them during a criminal act. For most crime victims, however, this solution has generally not proved practical because victims frequently do not know who committed the crime against them and the criminals are not always apprehended. Even when a criminal is available to be sued, the victim may not have adequate funds to pay for a lawsuit, or the criminal may have no money to pay damages if the victim is successful.

Victim Compensation Laws

During the 1970s many states enacted victim compensation statutes, which authorize payment of money from the public treasury to crime victims so that they are not forced to bear the full burden of the crime. Although compensation can be provided for lost earnings, medical expenses, and the replacement of missing property, the majority of plans do not replace every dollar lost.

Most compensation plans provide benefits only to victims who have low income or few resources, although some plans allow anyone who is an innocent victim or did not contribute to the cause of her injuries to receive benefits. Some plans pay benefits only to victims who are physically injured or to the families of victims who are killed.

An individual who wishes to apply for crime victim compensation must do so promptly after the injury. Ordinarily, this is done by filling out a form provided by the state official or victim compensation board responsible for administering the program. States generally will not consider applications filed later than a specified period after the crime.

An Automated Victim Notification System

Crime victims commonly worry about the day when an inmate convicted in their case is released from custody. Women who have been stalked and victimized by boyfriends and former spouses fear that they will return again. Only rarely is the victim promptly notified of an inmate's release. In 1997 the state of Kentucky addressed this problem by introducing the first completely automated victim notification system.

The Kentucky system, called Victim Information and Notification Everyday (VINE)™, is a statewide system that seeks to help crime victims, especially those who have been subjected to Domestic Violence. The VINE system keeps tabs on inmates in Kentucky's 17 state prisons and 83 county jails.

To obtain information, a person dials a toll-free number and supplies the prisoner's name or prison identification number. A computer then provides information as to where the prisoner is incarcerated, the telephone number and address of the jail or prison, the date of the inmate's next Parole hearing, and the date the sentence expires.

In addition, a person may confidentially register with the automated system and request to be notified when an inmate is released. Registered persons automatically receive a telephone call within ten minutes of an inmate's transfer or release, giving them time to take precautions.

Further readings

"VINE Brochure." Available online at <> (accessed February 27, 2004).

As part of a victim compensation plan, a state may take any profit a criminal makes from the crime and hold it in trust to pay victims who successfully sue the criminal. This feature is designed to encourage victims who would ordinarily not sue because they are aware that most criminals cannot pay judgments. Under such a plan, any money paid to a convicted criminal for a book, story, or dramatization of the crime must be turned over to the state and the funds deposited into a special escrow account and held available to pay any victim who successfully sues the criminal. Forty-one states have adopted such laws, and the federal government established a similar process in the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 3681–3682).These statutes are known as "Son of Sam" laws after David Berkowitz, a New York serial killer who left a note signed "Son of Sam" at the scene of one of his crimes and was thereafter nicknamed Son of Sam by the New York press. The first Son of Sam law (N.Y. Exec. Law § 632-a [McKinney 1990]) was enacted by the New York state legislature in 1977 after it learned that Berkowitz was planning to sell his story of serial killing.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the New York law in Simon and Schuster v. New York Victims Crime Board, 502 U.S. 105, 112 S. Ct. 501, 116 L. Ed. 2d 476 (1991). The Court held that the law was based on the content of a publication and therefore violated the First Amendment. New York quickly amended its law to apply to any economic benefit the criminal derived from the crime, not just the proceeds from the sale of the offender's story. This redefinition was intended to eliminate the unconstitutional regulation of expressive activity and reconceptualize the law as a regulation of economic proceeds from crime. Other states have modified their laws as well, but it remains to be seen if they will be found constitutional.

Victims' Rights Laws

In the early 1980s, groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, and Parents of Murdered Children began calling for legislative recognition of Victims' Rights. Partly as a result of their efforts, in 1982 Congress enacted the Victim and Witness Protection Act (VWPA) (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1512–1515, 3663–3664), which provides penalties for interfering with witnesses, victims, or informants and allows for restitution to victims of federal crimes. The VWPA has served as a model for many state victim protection laws, especially those providing for restitution to crime victims. The Victims of Crime Act also provided $150 million to support compensation and victim assistance programs.

Most states have adopted provisions in support of victims' rights. The majority have been enacted through legislation, but several take the form of state constitutional amendments. These laws require victims to be treated with dignity and fairness, and many require that the victim be kept informed of the status of the case and be notified when the criminal is released from prison. A key part of these initiatives deals with "victim impact statements." A victim impact statement is made by the victim or a member of the victim's family at the time of sentencing or during a Parole hearing. The speaker describes the impact the crime has had upon the victim and her family.

In Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496, 107 S. Ct. 2529, 96 L. Ed. 2d 440 (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court forbade the use of victim impact statements in death penalty cases. The Court reasoned that the imposition of Capital Punishment could be based on subjective feelings for the victim rather than objective criteria indicating the defendant's guilt. In Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 111 S. Ct. 2597, 115 L. Ed. 2d 720 (1991), however, the Court reversed itself and held that the Eighth Amendment does not bar the jury from considering victim impact statements.

Victim Advocates

In response to the growing support for victims' rights, the criminal justice system has created the position of victim advocate. Victim advocates first gained prominence during the women's and victims' rights movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Rape and domestic abuse counselors saw the need for advocates to support and guide victims through the ordeal of trial.

Victim advocates counsel victims and their families, keep them informed about the progress of an investigation, prepare them for trial, refer them to needed services, explain court proceedings, and act as a liaison with state and local agencies. By providing support to people who have been devastated by a crime, they free police officers and prosecutors from the task of dealing with distraught families and friends.

Further readings

Boland, Mary L. 2001. Crime Victims' Guide to Justice. Naperville, Ill.: Sphinx Pub.

Dubber, Markus Dirk. 2002. Victims in the War on Crime: The Use and Abuse of Victims' Rights. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Sgarzi, Judith M., and Jack McDevitt, eds. 2003. Victimology: A Study of Crime Victims and Their Roles. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Tobolowsky, Peggy M. 2001. Crime Victim Rights and Remedies. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.


Shield Laws; Stalking; Victim Assistance Program; Victims of Crime Act; Victims' Rights.

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