Victims' Rights & Criminal Justice: History & Victims' Roles

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  • 0:01 Victim Rights
  • 0:48 Early Legislation
  • 2:08 Federal Legislation
  • 4:16 Victim Rights & Services Today
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Criminals have certain rights, like the right to an attorney and a speedy trial, but so do victims. In this lesson, we'll examine the history of victims' rights and services, including how victims play a role in the judicial system today.

Victim Rights

Lulu has a problem. She was a victim of a crime: a man broke into her house, hurt her, and stole her most valuable belongings. Now, she has medical bills to pay, she feels depressed, and she's not sure where to turn for help.

Victim rights are a group of legal rights given to victims of crimes. They can include things like the right to privacy, the right to testify at trial, and (in some instances) the right to financial compensation. For example, Lulu might be able to receive money to help pay her medical bills and to see a therapist to deal with her depression.

Let's look at the history of victim rights and services, including important legislation and the rights and services available today.

Early Legislation

Today, Lulu has certain rights and services available to her. But, that wasn't always the case. It used to be that victims had very little say as far as what they were able to do and the services they were able to receive. For example, a hundred years ago, Lulu might not be allowed to sit in at the trial of the man who hurt her, even if she wanted to. And, any medical bills or money she lost because of the burglary would be just a loss to her; she wouldn't be able to get any compensation.

All that began to change in the second half of the 20th century, as lawmakers began to recognize that victims deserved certain rights and services. In the mid- to late-1960s, for example, six different states set up victim compensation programs, which allowed victims like Lulu to receive money for reasonable expenses, such as medical bills, time missed from work, and counseling costs.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, many different victim service organizations were formed to help victims of different crimes. Organizations focusing on battered women, victims of drunk drivers, victims of violent crimes, and others all work independently to help victims of specific crimes get compensation, support, and legal rights (like being able to be present in court proceedings). Slowly, things were starting to change.

Federal Legislation

If Lulu lived in the 1970s, she might be able to get support and services from organizations set up to help victims. Depending on where she lived, she also might be able to receive compensation for some of her expenses. But, all of the support she would receive in the 70s would have to come from private organizations or state and local programs. There was no national agreement on what rights and services victims had.

All that changed in 1982, when then-President Ronald Reagan appointed a task force to investigate and support victims' rights. The task force created a list of recommendations for things that should be done to help victims of crimes. Among other things, it proposed that there be an addition to the sixth amendment of the United States Constitution, which covers the rights of criminals in the judicial system. The addition to that amendment would also ensure the rights of victims of crimes, not just the perpetrators.

The addition to the sixth amendment did not pass, but two other major pieces of legislation came out of the task force and were passed in 1982. The first, the Victim and Witness Protection Act of 1982 ensured fair treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system. The second major piece of national legislation enacted in 1982 was the Missing Children's Act of 1982, which made sure that information about missing and kidnapped children is entered into a national database quickly.

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