Crime Victims’ Rights Act
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan created the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime to address the needs of the millions of Americans and their families who are victimized by crime every year. The task force’s goal was to review the policies and programs affecting crime victims and then advise the President and the Attorney General with respect to actions to improve efforts to assist and protect vicitms. Among its many findings was the lack of compensation and services for crime victims and a large imbalance between a defendant’s rights and those of the victim. As a result, the task force made many recommendations to the President and the Attorney General. The most notable changes in federal victims’ rights and services resulting from the task force’s work were:
- The passage of the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (VOCA) that funds victim services through fines and fees levied against federal criminal offenders; and
- Under United States Code Title 42, the establishment of crime victims’ rights, services and compensation in law enforcement, prosecution, courts, and corrections.
Twenty years later, the landscape of victims' rights changed dramatically when President George W. Bush signed the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA) into law on October 30, 2004. 18 U.S.C. § 3771 (2004). The CVRA establishes the rights of crime victims in federal criminal proceedings and provides mechanisms for victims to enforce those rights. Although many of the rights listed in the CVRA are similar to the rights established by a former provision, 42 U.S.C. § 10606, the CVRA gives victims a greater role in the criminal justice process and significantly affects the way Department of Justice employees interact with crime victims.
Section 3771(a) of the CVRA provides crime victims with the following rights:
- The right to be reasonably protected from the accused.
- The right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any public court proceeding, or any parole proceeding, involving the crime or any release or escape of the accused
- 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 right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding.
- The reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the government in the case.
- The right to full and timely restitution as provided by law.
- The right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay.
- The right to be treated with fairness and with respect for the victim's dignity and privacy.
- The right to be informed in a timely manner of any plea bargain or deferred prosecution agreement.
- The right to be informed of the rights under this section and the services described in section 503(c) of the Victims' Rights and Restitution Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. 10607(c)) and provided contact information for the Office of the Victims' Rights Ombudsman of the Department of Justice.
Additionally, the CVRA allows either the victim or the government to assert the victim's rights in court. If the judge denies the right asserted, the victim or the government may then ask the court of appeals to review the judge’s ruling. The court of appeals must rule on the petition within 72 hours of its filing, but the statute makes clear that court proceedings may not be delayed more than five days for purposes of enforcing the CVRA. Further, in any appeal in a criminal case, the government may ask the court of appeals to review a judge’s denial of the victim's rights.
The CVRA has had a tremendous impact on the Justice Department and in turn, on victims of federal crime. Since the CVRA's passage, United States Attorneys' offices have developed an increased awareness and a more energetic approach to according victims their rights. In the nearly seven years since the CVRA went into effect, there has been a dramatic change in the role of victims in federal criminal cases. Victims are taking part in cases in greater numbers than ever before by attending court proceedings, exercising their right to be heard, and receiving notifications of public court proceedings. The number of identified victims in federal cases has more than tripled since the CVRA passed, increasing from 554,654 victims in 2004 to 2.2 million victims in 2010, a 298% increase. Victim notifications doubled to 5.7 million notices within one year of CRVA's passage in 2004 and totaled nearly 8 million in 2010.
In addition to the rights granted under the CRVA, crime victims receive services to help them through the criminal justice process. Pursuant to The Attorney General Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance, victim service professionals in the various investigative agencies and litigating components in the Department of Justice provide numerous services to victims of federal crimes. These services begin at the investigative stage and continue through the prosecution stage, post conviction proceedings, and imprisonment. The services include emergency assistance, counseling and social service referrals, assistance with creditors, providing information about victim impact statements, assistance with securing victim compensation, and restitution information.