The criminal justice system is designed to prevent crime from occurring, as well as administering justice after a crime is committed. One important aspect of this side of the law is to ensure that victims of crime are well protected and receive fair treatment throughout the process. That is why government and local agencies are required to ensure victims’ rights, from making sure that the accused stays away to notification for every important date concerning the crime.
And no single segment of crime victims receives as much protection as female victims of sexual crimes. More than any other group of crime victims, female victims of sexual assault, harassment, and other sexual crimes are the main focus of many local, state, and federal law enforcement measures to ensure the protection of victims’ crime. As the federal level of the justice system offers a vast amount of information regarding the protection of victims’ rights, it serves as the perfect starting point to understanding victims’ rights.
The most comprehensive bill that covering victims’ rights is 18 United States Code, Section 3771, which includes eight measures designed to protect victim’s rights. One point of the Bill of Victim’s Rights is that the victim has the right to be reasonably protected from the accused (United States House of Representatives, 2006). This includes every measure that local and government authorities can take to make sure the accused does not cause any further hardship or threaten the victim in any way.
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Another important part of the victims’ bill of rights is making sure that victims are able to state their case in full, and have the right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding (United States House of Representatives, 2006). Making sure that victims utilize their right to be heard begins initially with the law enforcement agent taking their statement.
The purpose of the victim impact statement is to give the victim of the crime the chance to express, in writing, the impact of the crime, including all economic losses, physical or psychological injuries, and significant changes to the victim’s quality of life (Commonwealth of Virginia, 2000). Whatever the victim tells the law enforcement agents about the impact of the crime on his or her life helps determine the types of assistance that a victim may need.
For sexual assault victims this aspect of the process is very important, as the crime is often committed with few or no other witnesses. Victims of sexual assault illustrate many of the reasons that victims require such strong protection of their rights. Because of the violent nature of rape and sexual assault, victims are often traumatized far more than other crime victims. Victims of sexual assault and rape are often left frightened and unwilling or unable to pursue the necessary course of justice against their perpetrators.
This fear might encourage them to withhold information that may also be embarrassing or painful to bring up, leading to the perpetrator getting away with the crime. As serious crimes, the charges that result from sexual assault and rape are significant and can result in severe penalties for the perpetrator, including long prison sentences. However, despite the seriousness of sexual crimes, most victims fail to report them to authorities for a variety of reasons, including the fear that their rights may not be fully protected.
The fact that many of these victims do not report the crime leads to the criminals not being convicted. As for all sexual crimes against females, rape remains the least reported of them all, which also includes having the least number of indictments and least number of convictions of all violent crimes in America; the segment of the population that experiences the highest amounts of rape and lowest amounts of reporting them is among college students, where the reporting rate is around 5%. (Fisher, et. al, 2000).
This low instance of reporting of sexual assault and rape illustrates an important deficiency in the criminal justice system’s ability to convince female sexual crime victims of their rights. Many of the reasons that females cite for not reporting the crimes inflicted against them include fear of blame from society, desire to quickly move on with their lives, their desire to avoid a long investigation and subsequent trial, and finally out of concerns for their privacy. It is the job of police, the district attorney’s office, and federal branches to make sure that none of these reasons prevent a victim from reporting a crime.
Because of this there are many programs designed to provide crime victims with accurate information about the criminal justice system and the many rights that victims possess. At the federal level, the Department of Justice offers many programs and initiatives to ensure that victims are made fully aware of their rights. The Office of Justice Programs has an Office for Victims of Crime that works throughout the year on programs designed to assist victims of crime through grants. The amount of help that the Office for Victims of Crime gives to victims is considerable.
In Fiscal Year 2007, Office of Victims of Crime distributed more than $370 million to the states through Victims of Crime Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 30, 2004 and contains four major sections related to crime victims and the criminal justice process, which include protecting crime victims' rights, eliminating the substantial backlog of DNA samples collected from crime scenes and convicted offenders, and improving and expanding the DNA testing capacity of federal, state, and local crime laboratories (U. S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime [OVC], 2008).
The Office for Victims of Crime has also given assistance grants and more than $165 million to the states through Victims of Crime Act compensation grants, with both the victim assistance grants and the victim compensation awards funded by the Crime Victims Fund, which is culled from fines, penalties, and bail forfeitures collected from convicted federal criminals (OVC, 2008). Other compensation measures taken on behalf of victims include providing reimbursement to crime victims for crime-related expenses such as medical costs, mental health counseling, funeral and burial costs, and lost wages or loss of support. hile state victim assistance programs fund local victim assistance services such as crisis intervention, counseling, emergency shelter, and criminal justice system advocacy (OVC, 2008). And, while the Office for Victims of Crime provides monetary compensation to many victims, it also heads up several programs designed to create a stronger conglomeration of criminal justice departments to ensure the protection and assistance of crime victims.
The Office trains criminal justice professionals about the needs and rights of victims of crime and provides them with the latest in ideas and practices in victim protection through such networks as the Office’s Help Exchange Lessons and Practices in Victim Services message board, and finally the Office sponsors the National Victim Assistance Academy, an annual training conference for those who assist victims and survivors of crime (OVC, 2008).
While there remain many programs set up by the Department of Justice to ensure victims’ rights, most of the inspiration for the programs continues to come from the basic tenets of the Victims’ Bill of Rights. Another important aspect of the Victims’ Bill of Rights is that the victim is made aware of everything that occurs in the case as it progresses.
This also means that the victim has the right to any and all information concerning the case of the prosecution. According to the U. S. code victims have: “The right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any public court proceeding, or any parole proceeding, involving the crime or of any release or escape of the accused” (United States House of Representatives, 2006).
This means that victims should not be made to wait for the latest information that arises in the case, including any revelations about the accused or any changes in his or her status. Providing accurate and timely information to victims about their rights is one of the main ways of protecting their rights, and the Nationwide Automated Victim Information and Notification System has been established to make sure that they receive information pertaining to their case as soon as it becomes available.
Began with funding by the Office for Victims of Crime, the Victim Information and Notification System is a computer-automated system that notifies crime victims of key events in their cases, including an offender’s release before trial or from prison; as of September 2007, VNS was serving more than 1,300,000 crime victims nationwide with information on federal criminal justice cases provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Postal Inspection Service, the United States Attorneys' Offices, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (OVC, 2008).
By keeping crime victims informed of the status of their case and of the perpetrator, criminal justice professionals are able to provide victims with a piece of mind that allows them to retain a semblance of a normal life after crime. The Victims’ Bill of Rights continue with: “The right not to be excluded from any such public court proceeding, unless the court, after receiving clear and convincing evidence, determines that testimony by the victim would be materially altered if the victim heard other testimony at that proceeding; the reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the Government in the case” (2006).
By giving the victim the right to access the court information, as well as hear the case made against the accused in detail, the federal and local governments are ensuring that victims have significant influence on the outcome of the case. They are able to revise and mistakes made in the case of the prosecution, and they are also able to participate as much as possible in the proceedings. Not only does this help the victim put some of the trauma from the crime behind him or her, but it also significantly affects the ability of the Government to prosecute the accused.
Additional rights ensured by the Victims’ Bill of Rights are loyal to the basic ideals of the American Bill of Rights and deal mainly with the right to a speedy trial. According to the bill, victims have: “The right to full and timely restitution as provided in law; the right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay” (United States House of Representatives, 2006). This not only ensures that the law will pursue the case against the accused to prevent further crime, but it also reinforces the role of the law as efficient protector.
Also, by ensuring that the proceedings move in a timely manner, the victim is not required to endure a long and painful process. These measures go along well with the final right guaranteed by the victims’ bill of rights, and that is the right to be treated with fairness and with respect for dignity and privacy (2006). In the end, this is most important of all the rights, and perhaps a culmination as well, as all of the rights assured victims are to treat them with the utmost respect, fairness, and dignity.
The duty of the U. S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice is to ensure victims of crime that their rights will be protected, and their results have been mixed at best. While there remain many important programs to educate victims on their rights, the case of sexual assault and rape victims and their low rate of reporting crimes against them speak of a general failure in assuring victims of their rights’ protection.
Organizations like the Office for Victims of Crime must work harder to ensure that the victims of crime requiring the most assurance and protection receive what they need, and not just monetary compensation for financial losses or medical bills. While some rights vary from state to state, with some states guaranteeing even more rights to victims than others, the general protections afforded by the Victims’ Bill of Rights should be known by all victims. In the end, educating victims on their rights is the biggest protection that any government or local authority can offer victims of crime.
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