Every day we read, see and listen about the crime that is happening in our communities. For most people it is easy to dismiss the crime that has taken place because “I don’t live in that neighborhood”, “I don’t associate with those people”, or “I don’t engage in that behavior”. The sad truth is that crime can happen anywhere to virtually anyone. Think about some of the tragedies you have heard about; the young mother driving home from work who is killed by a person speeding from the law or the person at a family picnic who is hit by random gunfire or the family who attends a memorial service and returns home to find their house has been burglarized. These are tragedies because not one of these victims or families were associating with the “wrong people” in the “wrong neighborhood” or engaging in the “wrong behavior”. It is easier to believe it cannot happen to me, my children or my family because then we are “safe” from crime. That is why when crime does happen to an innocent person they are suddenly thrown into a criminal justice system they know little about; know how to navigate or what their rights are.
Only 30 years ago, crime victims had virtually no rights and no assistance. The criminal justice system often seemed indifferent to their needs. Victims were commonly excluded from courtrooms and denied the chance to speak at sentencing. They had no access to victim compensation or services to help rebuild their lives. There were few avenues to deal with their emotional and physical wounds. Victims were on their own to recover their health, security, and dignity.
Today, the nation has made dramatic progress in securing rights, protections, and services for victims. Every state has enacted victims’ rights laws and all have victim compensation programs. More than 10,000 victim service agencies now help people throughout the country. In 1984, Congress passed the bipartisan Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which created a national fund to ease victims’ suffering. Financed not by taxpayers but by fines and penalties paid by offenders, the Crime Victims Fund supports victim services and victim compensation programs that pay some of victims’ out-of-pocket expenses from the crime, such as counseling, funeral expenses, and lost wages.
Victims’ rights advocates have scored remarkable victories over the last 30 years. But there is still a lot of work to be done. As we move forward, we are increasingly expanding our reach to previously underserved victim populations, including victims of color, American Indians and Alaska Natives, adults molested as children, victims of elder abuse, and LGBTQ victims. Today, we are shining a spotlight on other abuses that have long been unreported and often not prosecuted—hate and bias crimes, bullying, and sex and labor trafficking, among others.