Victims’ Rights in the 50 States

  • In 1999 there were 7,357,060 violent victimizations in the U.S.
  • The U.S. Constitution guarantees more than a dozen rights to those accused of committing crimes.
  • Not one word is written in the U.S. Constitution on behalf of crime victims.

Victims of violent crime in America will not achieve equity in the criminal justice system until the U.S. Constitution guarantees their right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. Without diminishing the rights of defendants this modest goal of fundamental fairness, which is exercised by every other class of American, can be achieved through a series of basic guarantees:

  • That victims receive timely notice of any release, escape, and public proceeding involving the crime;
  • That victims not to be excluded from such proceedings;
  • That victims are to be heard at release, plea, sentencing, commutation, and pardon proceedings;
  • That victims are not to be subjected to undue delay, or to decisions that disregard their safety or their just claims to restitution.

It is an unfortunate irony that constitutional rights created to protect the innocent now shield the guilty. Faith in the criminal justice system is routinely undermined by inequity and fear of retribution. When a terrorist receives $10 million to defend his actions but the survivors of his crime must chose between attending his trial and making a victim impact statement we are diminished as a society. Psychopaths and pedophiles spinning through a turnstile system of justice with accelerating rates of violence leave shattered victims in their wake and plague our minds with doubts concerning our own safety. When only nine percent of reported violent crimes are resolved with the perpetrator being incarcerated, criminal justice is perceived as justice for criminals. When this perception infects the majority of innocent people, the process is eroded by a reluctance to cooperate, which fosters still more criminal activity. If we treated offenders as shabbily as we treat victims, it would be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

We should never lightly amend the United States Constitution. However, victims of crime will never be fairly treated by a system that does not afford them equal fundamental rights, and that can only be achieved through constitutional amendment. Thomas Jefferson eloquently stated the need to occasionally modify the ultimate law of the land: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered, and manners and opinions change; with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”

1Source: National Crime Victimization Survey; January 2001: NCJ 184938

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