A Brief History of Crime Victims’ Rights

Written By: Jonathan Moore, Outreach Specialist

In 1981, Washington State enacted a Victims’ Bill of Rights, which enumerates 15 specific rights that serve to compensate, inform, empower, and protect crime victims in Washington State. In 1989, Washington State also amended its Constitution to further protect crime victims’ rights. 

It took a decades-long movement, with powerful supporters from across the political spectrum, to recognize the experience of crime victims in the criminal justice system, and to give them a “significant role” in courtrooms where they had previously been silenced. The rights provided to crime victims in Washington State allow crime victims to participate in the criminal justice system in ways that were not historically possible. Until the creation of the Victims’ Bill of Rights, crime victims primarily served an evidentiary function; acting only as “witnesses” in the criminal justice system.

Thanks to the legal rights afforded them, crime victims now have more agency over their experience. Victim Impact Statements allow crime victims to stand and address the judge at sentencing hearings. Victim/Witness Units at Prosecutor’s offices keep crime victims informed of hearing dates, so that they may attend. Crime victims are compensated for time spent away from work due to cooperating with the criminal justice system, and also have a right to orders of restitution.

Despite crime victims’ rights being enacted nearly 40 years ago, most crime victims are unaware of them, and are only introduced to these rights during distressing moments in their lives. Victim Support Services’ (VSS) Advocates help educate crime victims on their rights, and work to support them in realizing those rights. These rights-based efforts by VSS advocates are a continuation of a cultural movement toward supporting crime victims in their healing journeys in what the National Crime Victim Law Institute calls, “one of the most successful civil liberties movements of recent times.”

To learn more about Crime Victims’ Rights in Washington State you can check out VSS’ website HERE