The courtroom scene is a familiar one. The defendant walks in surrounded by family and attorney, dressed in suit and tie and carefully scrubbed and manicured for the occasion. All eyes are riveted on the defendant, who is the center of the drama about to be played. Sitting in the corner of the courtroom is the victim, who seems almost irrelevant to the court proceedings. Even the title of the case makes no mention of the victim; it is "District of Columbia versus (the defendant)."
Although it is the victim who suffers medical and psychological damages from the crime and often severe economic loss as well, in courtroom parlance the victim is merely a "witness" to the crime. It is the state--not the victim--that receives any fines levied against the defendant should he be found guilty. Over the years, a body of law has developed that rightfully safeguards the rights of the defendant. But what about the rights of the victim?
That is the issue addressed by a bill that has received preliminary approval by the D.C. Council and should receive final approval in February. If the council adopts this concept--which I have presented in every legislative session since 1975--the District will join more than 30 states in legislating a way for victims of violent crime to be compensated for certain damages. Under the bill, at the discretion of a victim's compensation board to be established, a victim or his dependent could be compensated up to $25,000 for medical injuries, loss of income, rehabilitation costs and, in the case of death, funeral costs (up to $2,000). The victims would only receive payment for losses not covered by insurance or other sources, and which would cause him undue financial hardship. Payments would be derived from a fund based on several sources of income, including a special fine to be levied on the convicted criminal ($20 to $500 per felony charge and $10 per misdemeanor) and appropriations from the council. It is estimated that the cost of the program would be no more than $719,000 the first year, and perhaps considerably less.
Victims-of-crime legislation is not an experimental concept. It was first implemented in New Zealand in 1963, in California in 1965 and New York in 1967. In many respects, the concept dates back to biblical times, when the code of justice called for the criminal to make direct restitution to the victim rather than the state.
As our system of justice evolved, however, it was left to the state to prosecute the criminal, and the rights of the victim receded into the background. Victims-of-crime legislation has a secondary purpose: to encourage victims to cooperate with the criminal justice system. The bill would require that in order to collect for damages, a victim must report the crime and cooperate with the police. The bill also calls for payments to innocent persons killed or injured while assisting in the apprehension of criminals or while aiding other victims.
There have been some fears raised about the potential costs of this legislation. However, a study by the National Institute of Justice belies this fear, in a comparison of 18 states with similar legislation. The study found that the average expenditure under the law is 18 cents per resident per year. Three- quarters of the states spend amounts in the range of 4 to 40 cents a resident. In my view, 18 cents is not too much to ask each citizen to pay to help innocent victims of crime.