LOIS HAIGHT HERRINGTON, chairman of the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime, says that even though the study commission finished up its work last week and closed its offices, she is not going to go home and forget the stories she has heard. Neither are the eight other members of the task force who were impressed and moved by the testimony they heard from criminal law experts and victims of crime in a series of hearings across the country. The final report of the task force is a comprehensive list of practical recommendations for programs to improve the treatment and counseling of victims of crime. Some are controversial, some can be effected easily and would have been years ago if a little compassion and common sense had been in evidence. Others will require sustained effort and money but are well worth the cost.
Three recommendations go beyond the committee's charge to consider victims' rights. And all three are flawed, posing serious civil liberties questions. The first is a recommendation that the exclusionary rule be abolished in all criminal cases. The question is now before the Supreme Court, and is best addressed there. The second is a proposal that arrest records--not convictions, but charges that did not result in convictions--be made available to employers in cases of persons charged with child molestation or pornography. This recommendation was designed to ensure that sex offenders who prey on children will not be employed in positions that bring them into contact with children. But the essential distinction between persons charged and persons convicted should be preserved.
Finally, the task force recommendation that victims be permitted to sit in the courtroom during the entire trial of an accused--even if the victim is later to be called as a witness himself--runs counter to universally observed and important criminal trial practice. It is axiomatic that witnesses should tell their own stories without having heard what others have said before them. The potential for tailoring testimony, even without consciously realizing it, is too great to allow this exception even for victims.
Some recommendations seem so clearheaded and simple that it is a wonder they have to be formally proposed. Separate waiting rooms in courthouses for victims and defendants ought to be mandatory. Restitution for material losses should be part of every sentence. Threatened witnesses and victims must be given police protection. Hospital personnel should have special instruction in dealing with crime victims during the difficult and highly emotional hours following assault. None of these steps requires legislation or significant appropriations.
Broader reforms are also warranted. Why shouldn't victims be allowed to file a kind of "impact statement" at the time of sentencing, or make their views known to parole boards? And compensation should be provided for victims of crime throughout the country, as is now done in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Counseling services and victims' ombudsmen would demonstrate society's concern for those who suffer from crime.
The task force report is a compendium of ideas that deserves the attention of courts and legislators. The document has already served an important purpose, though, in bringing the problems of victims to the attention of the public so that each of us, whether we encounter crime victims in our professional or in our personal lives will be more aware of their needs and better able to provide the right kind of help.