VICTIMS OF CRIME often feel left out of the criminal justice process. Sometimes offenders plead guilty and are sentenced without the victim's having played any part in the procedure at all. Even when there is a trial, the victim's physical wounds may have been healed, and the emotional trauma suffered is not visible to the judge or the jury. A number of state legislatures, though, have come up with a way to let the victim have some input at a time when it really counts, just before sentencing.
The most recent such "victim impact law" was enacted in Maryland just before the end of the 1982 session. Sens. Howard Denis and John J. Garrity introduced the bill, which requires the Division of Parole and Probation to prepare pre-sentence reports for the court and to provide certain information about the effect of the crime on the victim. Such information should include the extent of economic loss suffered as a result of the offense, a description of physical injury inflicted, an account of changes in personal welfare or family relationships that accompanied the crime and a statement of psychological services requested by the victim or his family.
While a judge need not always take these factors into consideration in determining sentence, he at least will have the information before him, and the victim will have the satisfaction of knowing that the court was aware of the full extent of his injury.
Victims' rights were also the subject of a decision by the Supreme Court of New Jersey this week. In ruling on a parole matter, the court upheld a state law that allows payments to families of homicide victims as a condition of parole for convicted murderers. The court ruled that murderers could be required to compensate victims' families for medical costs, funeral expenses and for a limited amount of lost earnings. While the value of a human life cannot be calculated, and the assets and earnings of a paroled murderer are seldom significant, the purpose of the law goes beyond a money payment to the victim's family. It is designed, as well, to impress upon the offender the enormity of his conduct and, by requiring him to meet this specific obligation, to assist in his rehabilitation.
The criminal justice system quite correctly concerns itself with the rights of defendants but often overlooks the very real concerns and needs of the victims. Maryland, New Jersey and other states are taking steps to correct that imbalance.