The criminal justice system exists to uphold public safety. A large part of that responsibility includes delivering justice to victims. However, what that looks like can vary from state to state. As we celebrate National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, it’s important for lawmakers to remember the existing criminal justice reform recommendations first offered by President Ronald Reagan.
Revered by Americans across the political spectrum, Reagan deployed a Task Force on Victims of Crime in the early 1980s. The task force determined that that criminal justice system had “deprived the innocent, the honest, and the helpless of its protection.” As a result, task force recommendations placed emphasis on notifying victims of court proceedings, considering victims’ voices in sentencing, and providing constitutional protections for victims. These criminal justice reform recommendations later inspired states to make amendments to their criminal laws and respective constitutions. While victims’ rights have grown over the years, their protections are still lacking. Arizona State University’s Academy for Justice recently published a report that outlined a number of gaps in victims’ rights.
Being informed on court proceedings should be a foundational pillar of victims’ rights. Though nothing can fully undo the damage caused by a criminal act, victim notification networks can reassure victims that justice is underway. Without these networks, victims or their families can be caught off guard by second-hand information. Take the tragic case of a Mississippi family who discovered a man suspected of being involved with the murder of their child was released on bond by watching the news. This is not how sensitive information should be discovered. Thankfully, states like Utah, offer greater protections that require prosecutors to keep victims (upon request) informed and involved in court proceedings.
At Right on Crime we believe victims’ voices should be considered at every stage. The importance of victim-impact statements lies in determining proportionate sentencing and reassuring victims’ that the criminal justice system has not forgotten them.
As President Reagan said when he deployed the Task Force on Victims of Crime, “For too long, the victims of crime have been the forgotten persons of our criminal justice system.”
Each time someone is made a victim, it’s understandable and commendable that a lawmaker might feel inspired to act. However, it’s equally important to reinforce existing rights, rather than creating duplicative legislation. Upholding existing rights and filling gaps in applications of these rights is a good place to start.