IN THE mid-'70s, law enforcement officials began to take a hard look at the way victims of crime, their survivors and witnesses in trials were treated by the system. Too often, they found, victims were ignored or treated callously. They were not informed at various stages of prosecution--particularly in the case of plea bargains and reduced sentences--and were given no opportunity to present their views, to show the court what the impact of the crime had been on them.
Almost without exception, victims also suffered economically even when the crime did not involve loss of property, for often medical costs and time lost from work were substantial. Sending a criminal to jail did little to compensate the victim, and few in authority seemed to care. At the same time, courts wereexpanding the rights of those accused of crime, and many victims felt doubly betrayed because they received little help at a time when their assailants had become the focus of attention.
Those concerned about changing these practices began to organize, and groups such as Compassionate Friends, Parents of Murdered Children and Mothers Against Drunk Driving were formed. The American Bar Association established a committee to devote attention to the rights and needs of victims and witnesses. A presidential task force was set up--it issued a comprehensive report last January--and, most important, legislators started to pay attention.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia now have compensation programs for victims of crime, and similar legislation is being considered on the federal level. Sen. John Heinz proposes that compensation be provided by fines on criminals; others, including Reps. Peter Rodino and Marty Russo suggest that fees collected on the sale of handguns be used. Last year, Congress passed laws to protect witnesses in criminal trials and to allow victims to present impact statements before sentencing in federal courts.
In our own area, the Stephanie Roper Committee, spearheaded by this young victim's mother, succeeded in getting important bills through the Maryland legislature this year. One would remove alcoholism from the list of mitigating circumstances considered at the time of sentencing, and another would increase the minimum time served by persons sentenced to life terms.
The National Organization for Victim Assistance, one of the groups allied in this cause, sponsored a conference in Washington this week to begin observance of National Victim Rights Week. One item on its agenda was the creation of organizations to assist victims through the shattering emotional experience they undergo. Such good works, and the continued attention of courts and legislators to the needs and rights of victims deserve support and encouragement.