Federal Crime Victims' Rights & Services

In the last three decades, the way in which the criminal justice system treats victims of crime has undergone a sea change—from an era in which, unfortunately, victims had no part in the system to today, when victims routinely receive a multitude of services to assist them and also have participatory rights in the criminal justice system. In 1982, understanding that reform was needed, President Ronald Reagan convened a task force to examine the role of victims in the federal criminal justice system.

The findings were bleak. In the Statement of the Chairman in the December 1982 Final Report of the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime, the Chairman wrote that victims who came forward to report or testify about a crime found "little protection." The Chairman further stated: "They discover instead that they will be treated as appendages of a system appallingly out of balance. They learn that somewhere along the way the system has lost track of the simple truth that it is supposed to be fair and to protect those who obey the law while punishing those who break it. Somewhere along the way, the system began to serve lawyers and judges and defendants, treating the victim with institutionalized disinterest."

Nearly thirty years later, the landscape is drastically improved for victims of crime. They have a much more central role in the criminal justice system and are entitled to a panoply of services and rights under federal statutes. Beginning the same year the task force issued its report, Congress began passing a series of laws designed to assist victims of crime: the Victim Witness Protection Act of 1982, which provided restitution for victims of federal crimes; the Victims Rights and Restitution Act of 1990, which entitles victims to services in the criminal justice system, beginning with investigation of the crime and continuing through the prosecution of the defendant; the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act of 1996, which mandates restitution in most federal cases; and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004, which grants victims a series of rights that allow them to participate in criminal court proceedings involving the crime.

The 94 United States Attorneys’ offices around the country are instrumental in providing victims services to assist in their recovery and in affording victims the rights to which they are entitled under the law. Each United States Attorney’s office has a Victim-Witness Staff that is primarily responsible for assisting victims as criminal cases are prosecuted. The Victim-Witness staff members provide services to victims, such as assisting with counseling referrals and crime victim compensation applications, notifying victims of court proceedings, attending court hearings with victims and explaining the proceedings, and providing opportunities for victims to explain to the judge how the crime has impacted them. Assistant United States Attorneys who prosecute criminal defendants work in collaboration the Victim-Witness staffs and also play an important role in ensuring that victims have the opportunity to exercise their rights in court proceedings.

In contrast to the “institutionalized disinterest” for victims reported by the task force in 1982, the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004 explains that victims have the right to be treated with fairness and with respect for their dignity. This is truly the essence of effective victim assistance and is the goal to which United States Attorneys’ offices aspire. The articles on this page provide additional details about the myriad ways in which the United States Attorneys’ offices aim to meet that goal and to ensure that victims receive assistance to help recover from the effects of crime and have the voice in the criminal justice system they have long been denied.