In 1981, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. In issuing his proclamation, Reagan said, “[W]e need a renewed emphasis on, and an enhanced sensitivity to, the rights of victims. These rights should be a central concern of those who participate in the criminal justice system, and it is time all of us paid greater heed to the plight of victims.”
The crime victims’ rights movement in the United States is one of the great bipartisan accomplishments in recent memory. Most scholars on the subject will place the official launch of the Victims’ Rights Movement in 1975 when lawyer Frank Carrington wrote “The Victims,” a conservative manifesto on the injustices faced by victims in the criminal justice system and an indictment of the liberal jurisprudence of the Warren Court. The movement quickly became ideologically diverse. Feminist scholars and activists, upset over the mistreatment of sexual assault and domestic violence victims, would become unlikely allies with conservative advocates of public safety.
The movement led to the adoption of crime victims’ bills of rights and constitutional amendments protecting these rights across the country, even at the federal level. The Victims of Crime Act of 1984 established the Crime Victim’s Fund and a majority of states have secured constitutional rights for victims of crime. Nearly all states have specific statutory protections for crime victims. Prosecutors’ offices across the country established victim service units.
Yet there is still much work to be done. In 2021, only 46% of victims of violent crimes reported them to the police and only 9% of victims received support from a victim services provider, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
One way in which some localities are addressing this is through police-based victim service units. These units are typically staffed with a combination of officers, social workers and victim advocates so services can more directly make their way to crime victims. The non-law enforcement officer members of these units often serve as an important intermediary between officers and detectives and crime victims. These units sometimes also run important peer-to-peer support groups for crime victims to help in the healing process.
Victim and non-victim witnesses also may face intimidation and pressure not to participate in the criminal justice process. Estimates suggest witness intimidation occurs in excess of 75% of the time in crimes in neighborhoods with large levels of gang activity. That report also found spouses/significant others and children of perpetrators are particularly likely to experience witness intimidation. A Bronx survey found 36% of witnesses are directly threatened, while 57% of those not directly threatened fear reprisals.
To try to combat this, local and state governments have adopted local witness protection programs and other efforts to try to protect witnesses. Some jurisdictions have increased the penalties for witness intimidation and others have tried better to protect the anonymity of non-victim witnesses.
By investing in victim services and witness protections, local policymakers can help ensure our most vulnerable fellow citizens have more positive outcomes and more cases make their way through the criminal justice system.