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Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Victim in the Criminal Justice System
The Rights of Victims
In colonial times, when a person committed a crime, it was considered to be an injury to the victim and the victim was entitled to prosecute the case. This system favored wealthy victims, however, because poorer victims did not have the financial resources to seek justice. To make the process fairer, the government took over the responsibility of prosecuting a person accused of committing a crime.
Crimes began to be considered public wrongs committed against the community, rather than private wrongs committed only against the individual victim. However, victims began to be considered a piece of evidence in the process, and they lost the ability to have meaningful participation in the process of justice.
For example, even though the crime is committed against the victim, the victim is often seen by the criminal justice system as peripheral to the case. The victim is not a party to the case, and cannot force the prosecutor to act on his or her behalf. The law does not permit a victim to privately prosecute a criminal case.
For many years, victims did not have any legal rights at all. They were expected to appear and give testimony, often without much preparation by the prosecutor. It may take months, even years, for a case to come to trial, and many victims just dropped out of the criminal court process.
In the 1970s, the crime victims' rights movement sought changes in the system to increase the rights of crime victims. President Reagan commissioned a task force on victims that produced a scathing report about the treatment of victims in the system and suggested numerous reforms. Improvements over the last twenty years include:
- rape evidence collection kits;
- better training of medical personnel;
- removal of victims' personal information from the public records;
- notification of victims when the perpetrator of a crime is released on bail;
- education of victims in court procedures;
- safe waiting areas for victims;
- limiting continuances;
- victims not being required to testify as to their addresses; and,
- assigning a single prosecutor for the entirety of the criminal case.
Rape Evidence Collection Kits
Before the presidential task force changed medical protocols, rape was not considered an injury by many hospitals. Rape evidence collection kits and the training of hospital staff are modifications that have improved the experiences of the victim. The kits standardized the type and quantity of evidence collected, so that all medical procedures and evidentiary requirements could be completed in most cases at the initial emergency room visit.
Training of Medical Personnel
The training of medical personnel improved the understanding of the dynamics of certain kinds of crimes, which resulted in more sensitive treatment of victims. For example, prior to training, some medical personnel blamed domestic violence victims for the crimes, asking, "Why didn't you leave, if this has happened before?" or "What were you two fighting about this time?" This made victims more reluctant to report the true nature of the injury. Some preferred to say that they had "fall en down stairs," or "bumped into a door," rather than be humiliated with questions or comments from medical staff. Training on the dynamics of domestic violence, including the cycle of violence often present in these cases, has improved the treatment of victims and made them more likely to report these types of crimes.
Prior to the changes in the law, the victim's name and address were available as public records. As a result, victims were easily harassed by the media, insurance and security salesmen, and the perpetrators of the crimes. Today, the release of the victim's address on public records may be prohibited. Some states also provide victims with protection from the assailant's intimidation by adding new crimes for communication or harassment of a witness, and increasing penalties for offenders who harass witnesses prior to trial. In some states, the offender's bail may be revoked if he or she violates the condition prohibiting him or her from contacting the victim pending trial, and he or she could return to jail until trial.
After being arrested, some offenders continue to harass their victims, either from a jail phone or after being released on bail (often without the victim being made aware of the release). When releasing the accused on bail, judges were not always aware of continued threats or harassment of the victim. Today, prosecutors more often confer with victims regarding danger issues and bail conditions. In some states, information about bail release is available, and intimidation of the victim may specifically be cause for the revocation of bail.
Prior to changes in the law, victims did not know what was involved in a preliminary hearing, how long it would take, or how they should pre pare. Now, victims are entitled to know about the procedures. Prosecutors and victim-witness personnel take the time to prepare the victim before the different parts of the trial.
Safe Waiting Areas
Victims and assailants often came in contact with each other in the hall ways surrounding the preliminary hearings, causing the victim continued distress. Victims are now entitled to wait in areas that minimize contact with the defendant.
Repeated continuances can cost the victim unnecessary expenses such as hiring a babysitter, leaving work, and parking. Some states require judges to consider the impact of continuances on a victim.
Prior to 1982, refusing to disclose your home and work address could result in being held in contempt of court. In order to maintain the privacy of the victim, some states prohibit compelling a victim to testify as to his or her address and other identifying information unless there is a valid legal reason. Testifying can be a frightening experience, especially for a child. Today, victims may be entitled to have a support person present in court; child victims may be entitled to specialized consideration.
Prosecutors could be repeatedly reassigned before the trial even began. Victims would have to tell each new prosecutor the same detailed story and would not receive notification of continuances. As a result of new laws, some prosecutor's offices have a single prosecutor stay with the case from start to finish in certain kinds of cases. Victims are also entitled to receive information on continuances. These are just some of the improvements that have evolved since the 1982 task force report.