Criminal Justice

What's Wrong With Victims' Rights?

If victims get higher priority, something else will have to get a lower priority-resulting in fewer arrests, fewer prosecutions or more clogged court dockets.



Criminals are generally despised, and cops are not universally beloved. But one participant in the criminal justice system has no enemies: victims of crime. They're the Sara Lee of American politics. Everybody doesn't like someone, but nobody doesn't like victims.

The movement to protect this group has achieved one success after another. Every state has laws specifying the rights of victims, and 33 have constitutional provisions as well.

In November, Illinois voters will decide whether to add a victims' rights section to the state constitution. Last year, a U.S. House committee held hearings on a federal constitutional amendment, which got a favorable mention in the 2012 Republican Party platform. It's hard to find anyone who opposes the idea.

It's an idea better in the abstract, though, than the concrete. You might forget that providing justice for victims is one of the central purposes of the entire criminal justice system. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging and accommodating the interests of those harmed by lawbreakers. But there are pretty narrow bounds on what more can and should be done on their behalf.

The Illinois law is typical in establishing the right of victims to be notified of court proceedings, be present at trials, get restitution and present statements about how the crimes have affected them. But critics say it lacks an effective enforcement mechanism.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan says some victims are denied what the law promises. The state constitution explicitly prevents them from going to court to appeal decisions by trial judges, leaving little recourse.

She's undoubtedly right. But the cold truth is that a constitutional amendment wouldn't make much difference.

Sometimes witnesses aren't invited to attend plea hearings because the government doesn't want to reveal that the defendant has agreed to implicate other bad guys. Including the victim, said a 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, "could compromise the investigation, as well as bring harm to the defendant and others."

Victims are often barred from trials because they plan to testify. That's not something to lament: Witnesses are normally kept out of the courtroom until they take the stand, to prevent them from tailoring their testimony (deliberately or unconsciously) in response to what other witnesses say.

The point is not to shaft the victim. It's to achieve a fair trial for the defendant by fostering accurate evidence. If victims were guaranteed the right to be present throughout, one consequence would be more erroneous convictions. It's hard to see how the victim of a crime benefits from sending the wrong person to prison.

The amendment doesn't actually change the Illinois rules on victim attendance at trials. It remains up to the judge. The difference is that the victim could appeal the decision to a higher court. But in real life, appeals courts give broad deference to the judges who preside at trials. A victim who asks for relief will rarely get it.

Not many are likely to request it. The reason police avoid illegal searches is because they know that if they arrest a suspect, a defense lawyer will demand that the incriminating evidence be thrown out. But most victims aren't going to hire lawyers to assert their rights. For most, the recourse afforded in this amendment will be of no use.

The federal victims' rights law is instructive. The government provides a complaint process for those who feel their rights were ignored, but the GAO unearthed only 11 complaints over three years—none of which were validated.

The federal law allows victims to file appeals when court decisions go against them. But it's rare for appeals to be filed and exceptionally rare for them to succeed.

Prosecutors would also be allowed to act on behalf of victims. But that raises the other real problem with victims' rights protections: the expense and time they require of prosecutors and police.

Official victim advocates cost money, which is money that can't be spent catching criminals or prosecuting them. A dollar spent on victims is a dollar taken from some other vital criminal justice task. If victims get higher priority, something else will have to get a lower priority—resulting in fewer arrests, fewer prosecutions or more clogged court dockets.

None of those effects will deter crime. And sometimes the best thing for victims is to avoid creating more of them.

NEXT: Brickbat: We All Scream

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  1. The reason police avoid illegal searches

    They do?

    1. This caught my eye as well.

      “The hell?”

    2. ^^What he said.

  2. Official victim advocates cost money, which is money that can’t be spent catching criminals or prosecuting them. A dollar spent on victims is a dollar taken from some other vital criminal justice task.

    The budget is a zero-sum game? AHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!111!!!

    In reality, the legislators will use the threat of removing mony from victims’ advocates offices to get more funding for other pet projects.

    1. Ted S. you are two for two today.

      One more for the hat trick!

  3. The point of codifying victims’ rights in law is to set benchmarks, so that when the government disregards victims, the ensuing media expose can cite specific legal provisions which the authorities disregarded. I’m exaggerating for effect, but it’s more damning to say “the government violated the state constitution by failing to advise the victim of the robber’s impending parole,” than to say, “gosh, the victim didn’t likevit when he wasn’t informed.”

    1. Is there no public announcement when a prisoner is released or paroled? One would think that if a prior victim of a parolee were so concerned for his safety as to desire to be told of the release (presumably to take some protective action against further victimization), said victim could surely watch the relevant public records to keep abreast of developments in his offender’s case.

      1. One wouldn’t think that if one knew about what one spoke.

        Every Monday morning for the last 20 years or so, I dutifully searched the Texas prison system’s website to see what was going on with the guy who had stabbed me and my girlfriend. Every Monday the site said he was in the Huntsville unit. Then, one Monday it didn’t. His name could no longer be found.

        After calling the Texas Department of Corrections, I finally found out that he had been paroled. There was no notice of a hearing to my family or hers, despite the DA’s assurances. There was no notice of his release. So, he now lives about 40 miles away from me.

      2. I don’t believe there is such notification. People are released from prison every day and not always according to the schedule that was laid out in their sentence. I’ve never seen some listing of who was released anywhere I have lived.

      3. “An accomplice in the notorious “Tuxedo King” kidnapping case is about to get sprung from the slammer in a virtual replay of a foul-up from three years ago, The Post has learned.

        “Aurelina Leonor was granted parole on April 1, even though the survivors of the late victim Harvey Weinstein didn’t get a chance to argue against her release, according to Weinstein’s cousin, Ed Weinstein….

        “Weinstein, who lives on the Upper East Side, said he would have jumped at the chance to testify against Leonor, who repeatedly made phone calls demanding $3 million ransom while Harvey Weinstein was chained in a hole along the West Side Highway for nearly two weeks in 1993.

        “Leonor also lowered a microphone into the hole to record Weinstein saying “this is unbearable” on a tape that was later played for his anxious family.”…

      4. “Family of William LeVea’s victim outraged over possible early release….

        “LeVea repeatedly rammed his car into Spack’s pickup truck Nov. 20, 2009, in an act of drunken road rage. Spack called 911 during the attack to report he was being harassed by a violent driver. LeVea drove into the back of Spack’s truck, causing it to veer into an oncoming pickup being driven by Bradly Leyburn of Cato, killing Spack.

        “Leyburn, 38, learned of LeVea’s possible early release by reading about it on Friday.

        “”I’m speechless here,” Leyburn said. He’d been assured that prison officials would notify him if LeVea came up for parole. Leyburn heard nothing about the medical parole hearing, he said.”…..rison.html

  4. None of those effects will deter crime. And sometimes the best thing for victims is to avoid creating more of them.

    That of course isn’t the best thing for the State.

  5. People and organizations that are against victims rights or proclaim that the regular guy “doesn’t need the gobment to protect them” are generally crooks.

  6. 1. There would probably be a lot fewer victims if everyone had the means to defend themselves readily available. Many laws create opportunity zones for people to be victimized by those with criminal intent.
    2. A well-armed citizenry is a more polite, law-abiding, and respectful community.

    1. That is bull.

      There are people that believe that children that sit too close to the TV will need glasses.

      There are more informed people that know that kids that need glasses sit close to the TV.
      Of course neighborhoods with law abiding armed citizens are safer than those with criminals and gun restrictions. It’s due to the “LAW ABIDING CITIZENS” and not the “GUN RESTRICTIONS”.

      1. Alice Bowie|4.21.14 @ 10:27AM|#
        “That is bull.
        There are people that believe that children that sit too close to the TV will need glasses.”

        For the GOLD in “false equivalence”, we have Alice and the rest of you can just go home.
        That level of stupidity is going to be very hard to beat!

        1. It’s true Sevo.

          You got a bunch of law abiding citizens that happen to own firearms living together claiming that their neighborhood is safe because they have guns. The reality is that they are law abiding citizens. Not that criminals are avoiding them.

          In highly dense crime neighborhoods in which gun ownership is not practiced by responsible law abiding citizens, you need some law and order.

          1. Yeah, if we only had gun laws like Chicago, we’d totally have their low level of crime.

            1. Chicago needs strict gun laws due to the high crime situation.

              Your all-white law-abiding responsible gun-owning neighborhood full of 45+ white people in Arizona with no crime doesn’t require this.

              1. Holy shit, that made my brain hurt

              2. Why should government agents be the only ones able to effectively defend themselves against the bad guys? Are all those bad guys in Chicago assaulting the police officers? Hunh. Right.

                In those places like Chicago pass a law that disarms every cop that goes off duty, or at least restricts them like anybody else. See how fast the cops protest.

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