Each year, there are more than 8 million crimes of violence against Americans. Too often, the victims of these crimes are treated as an afterthought in the ensuing judicial proceedings -- they are frequently barred from the courtroom, denied the opportunity to address the court and forgotten when their convicted attackers are released or paroled. Simply put, those whom society has failed to protect are often victimized a second time by our society's judicial system.
Consider the following examples provided in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee:
Sharon Christian was raped. Two weeks later, when she was walking down the street in her neighborhood, she saw her attacker standing on the corner. He had been released on personal recognizance with no notice to her and no opportunity to ask for a restraining order.
Roberta Roper was denied the right to sit in the courtroom at the trial of her daughter's murderer.
Patricia Pollard was abducted, raped, brutally beaten, slashed with the jagged edge of a beer can and left to die in the Arizona desert. She was not notified when the parole board agreed to release her attacker from prison. When she found out (on a fluke) and was allowed to appear before the board, it reversed its decision and kept him in prison.
In the Oklahoma City bombing trial of Timothy McVeigh, some of the victims and surviving family members were denied the right to attend legal proceedings.
These are not isolated examples.
To ensure that crime victims are treated with fairness, dignity and respect, I introduced the Crime Victims Rights Constitutional Amendment along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The amendment would give victims of violent crimes the rights:
To be notified of judicial proceedings.
To attend all public proceedings.
To consideration for a trial free from unreasonable delay.
To be heard at certain crucial stages in the process.
To an order of restitution.
To have their safety considered when the attacker is released from custody.
To be notified of the offender's release or escape.
To be notified of these rights.
There is overwhelming support to provide victims' rights around the country. In fact, 32 states now provide some version of rights. The problem is that they are each different, resulting in a patchwork of protections, and provide no minimum floor of basic rights. If reform is to be meaningful, and victims accorded rights as the accused are, those rights must be in the Constitution.
Legal scholars agree. Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe has written that existing victims' rights statutes and state amendments "are likely, as experience to date sadly shows, to provide too little real protection whenever they come into conflict with bureaucratic habit, traditional indifference, sheer inertia, or any mention of an accused's rights regardless of whether those rights are genuinely threatened."
Attorney General Janet Reno has confirmed the need, testifying that, "unless the Constitution is amended to ensure basic rights to crime victims, we will never correct the existing imbalance in this country between defendants' constitutional rights and the haphazard patchwork of victims' rights."
Amending the Constitution is an appropriately difficult task, and not to be entered into lightly. Our amendment is the product of extended discussions with the Department of Justice, the White House, law enforcement officials, major victims' rights groups and diverse legal scholars. With numerous congressional hearings, more than three years of drafting (63 drafts) and 20 years of practical state experience to draw upon, this amendment is ready to be considered by the full Senate and House.
The amendment has strong bipartisan support, with 26 Republican and eight Democratic cosponsors. President Clinton and Bob Dole both supported an amendment in 1996, and Vice President Gore called for it in a recent speech. (As early as 1982, President Reagan's Task Force on Victims of Crime recognized the need for a federal constitutional amendment.)
The Crime Victims Rights Amendment will bring better balance to our judicial system by giving victims of violent crime the rights to be informed, present and heard at critical stages throughout their ordeal -- the least the system owes to those it failed to protect.
The writer, a Republican senator from Arizona, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.