Empowering Victims of Crime through Outreach and Involvement
Crime, at its core, inflicts harm on the victim. As such, one of the primary purposes of the criminal justice system should be to repair the damage done by the crime and prevent further victimization by rehabilitating and holding accountable the offender. Yet, with the criminal justice system and reform dialogue so often focused on offenders and taxpayers, the needs of individual victims frequently go undiscussed.
Although it is important to acknowledge the damage crime does to society at large, we must not forget the tremendous and often emotionally paralyzing impact crime has on the affected individuals. America’s criminal justice system must treat victims of crime with respect, fairness and dignity and protect them from harassment, intimidation or abuse. National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, April 19-25, is an opportune time to draw attention to the importance of protecting the rights and meeting the needs of individuals directly and personally affected by crime.
Beyond fostering a criminal justice system in which victims and survivors are ensured their day in court, state policymakers can empower victims by providing the information and support needed to make their own decisions as they recover from crime. In addition, policies can incorporate victims throughout the criminal justice system to help facilitate the healing process.
Every state has a crime victim compensation program to aid victims by covering certain expenses not covered by insurance or other programs. These funds can be used to cover some of the financial burdens associated with crime including medical expenses, funeral services, mental health treatment, lost wages or crime scene clean up. The federal government contributes annual Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grants to states and some states fund the remainder of their compensation programs through fees levied on convicted offenders, fines collected from traffic violations, or various court revenues. While no amount of money can remove the trauma associated with being a victim of crime, aid can be crucial to ensure a victim’s life is not knocked any further off-track.
As outlined by a recent study from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in conjunction with Justice Fellowship, victim compensation funds assist approximately 200,000 victims and survivors of crime through nearly $500 million awarded annually. However, there is currently more than $10 billion sitting in the federal Crime Victim Fund and, due to several factors including the underreporting of crime and the complexity of filing a victim compensation claim, many victims go unaided.
Much has been accomplished to strengthen victims’ rights but even more must be done to educate victims of their rights during the crucial first hours when many must file claims to be eligible for compensation funds. To encourage victims to apply for compensation and disburse more of the available funds, policymakers and criminal justice practitioners must look for innovative ways to deliver the relevant information to victims of crime. Partnering with professionals on the front lines of victims’ services, such as members of law enforcement and those providing medical services or mental health counseling, is crucial to increasing awareness among those eligible for assistance.
Incorporating victims willing to participate throughout the criminal justice process can help bring closure while allowing offenders to witness the human damage caused by their actions. Many states already have programs such as victim-offender mediation or require victim impact statements that provide information about the emotional, physical and financial effects of the crime on the victim and his or her loved ones prior to the imposition of a sentence.
Further, many states have enshrined the rights of victims in their state constitutions through victims’ rights amendments that outline the rights of victims and state that the rights granted to victims shall not be grounds for dismissing any criminal proceeding or setting aside any conviction or sentence.
Emotional, physical and financial recovery from a crime must be initiated and undertaken by the affected individual. The government certainly cannot repair the harm done by crime, nor should it direct how best a victim can recover. Yet, the criminal justice system can help provide victims with the resources they need to begin healing. By protecting the rights of crime victims and ensuring they have access to the information they need to recover, we can begin to rebuild lives affected by crime.