Victims' Rights

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Victims' Rights

Generally, the rights of the victims of a criminal act, whether at trial or after conviction of the perpetrator.

Victims' rights as a concept in American Criminal Law has had a patchy history. The prosecutorial-centered approach to criminal law developed in both the English and American Common Law systems tended to marginalize the victim's position in the criminal process. Other than their testimony, there was no formal role for victims during the criminal trial, and little way for them to obtain compensation for the harms inflicted on them following the trial.

During the post-World War II years, especially, American law seemed to be more interested in the rights of the criminally accused. This was evident after the Supreme Court's Miranda ruling (miranda v. arizona, 1966) and subsequent cases, which laid new boundaries for the constitutional rights of suspects. Even though many states were passing victims' compensation statutes at the same time, there were still concerns that the pendulum had swung too far in favor of criminal offenders.

In the 1970s, the phrase "victims' rights" began to be heard more and more as a rallying cry for those who felt that justice was not meted out equally to victims. Groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and various child advocacy groups raised the consciousness of the public regarding the treatment of victims by the criminal justice system. In response, the Justice Department, under President ronald reagan, set up the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime. In 1982, the task force issued a report that was strongly critical of existing victims' rights programs. It particularly criticized existing victims' compensation programs, which were described as "inadequate" in terms of resources and difficult to utilize.

As a result of the findings, the federal government passed the Victim and Witness Protection Act of 1982 (18 U.S.C.), providing restitution for crime victims and allowing the use of "victim impact statements" at federal sentencing hearings. In 1984, Congress passed the victim of crime act (VOCA), an attempt by the federal government to establish help for crime victims on a nationwide scale. Among other things, the act created a federal victims' compensation account funded by fines assessed in federal criminal convictions. It also established funding to help state programs that compensate the victims of crime. The act has resulted in the distribution of over $1 billion in funds to victims of crime since it began. Another notable federal law that was enacted to help victims of crime was the Violence against Women Act of 1994 (108 Stat. 1796, 1902). The act aided the victims of gender-based crimes by establishing new rights for those victims at trial and allotting funding to various organizations that assist those victims.

In the meantime, states began to pass their own victims' rights legislation, most of which established compensation programs for victims of crime. Some states went further, however, and passed victims' rights amendments to their state constitutions. These amendments, generally guaranteeing the right of the victim to be heard in criminal proceedings through the use of victim impact statements, have been enacted by a majority of the states. Their overall effect has been debated.

Nevertheless, at the federal level, a Victim's Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced in Congress in 1996, and again in 2000. This amendment is similar in scope as amendments at the state level. Among other things, it would provide that a victim has the right to be notified of hearings that involve the sentencing of the defendant, and to submit statements on all matters potentially affecting the custody of the accused or of a convicted offender. It would also require that the safety of victims be considered in defendant sentencing. Passage of this amendment would certainly mark the apogee of the victims' rights movement in America.

Further readings

Henderson, Lynne. 1985. "The Wrongs of Victims Rights." Stanford Law Review 37 (April).

Koskela, Alice. 1997. "Victim's Rights Amendments: An Irresistible Political Force Transforms the Criminal Justice System." Idaho Law Review 34 (winter)."Senate Panel Passes Victim's Rights Amendment." 2003. Congressional Quarterly (September 4).


Victim Assistance Program; Victims of Crime; Victims of Crime Act.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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