Report says U.S. could better treat crime victims
The report calls for changes to uphold international standards.
Nov. 06, 2008
Justice systems across the U.S. have failed to meet a number of international standards for the treatment of crime victims, according to a recent report by a prominent human rights group.
Human Rights Watch said in a September report that some jurisdictions allow police and prosecutors to decide who earns victim status and the protections that come with it, with some even being barred from testifying at trial.
The report uses interviews with victims, victim's advocates and attorneys to compare U.S. laws with international standards. Alison Parker, the author of the report and deputy director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, said more should be done to ensure "victim" status was not assigned arbitrarily to discriminate against some victims.
"Victims of crime and their families have suffered undeniable loss, violence, even death," Parker said in a news release. "Nothing about victims - not their race, gender, views on the death penalty, or their status as prisoners - can justify denying them access to services or to the justice system."
The report stated that Americans view the rights of victims and defendants as a "zero-sum game," where granting defendants protections they are allowed under the Constitution means infringing on victims' rights. The report said a justice system based on protecting human rights to the standards outlined in treaties the U.S. has signed could protect both parties.
One such standard is the amount of access victims have to police and the investigation. While the treaties demand victims have information about the investigation at every stage, some states only offer victims a single chance to "opt in" to receive information immediately after they report the crime. Parker said this decision places an additional burden on the victim.
"No victim should have only one opportunity, in the immediate aftermath of the crime, to make the often emotional decision about whether they want to get updates from police or prosecutors," Parker said in the news release. "Victims should be able to make that decision later, when they are less traumatized, or change their minds at any time."
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, an organization that opposes the death penalty, highlighted the report on its Web site because of HRW's finding that victims' families had little say on the prosecutor's decision to ask for the death penalty in capital cases. The group's executive director, Renny Cushing, was quoted at the beginning of the report commenting on how such small influence is an additional slight to victims' families.
"I applaud the way our nation embraced the survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks," Cushing said in the report. "But the cab driver who got shot in Baltimore on Sept. 11, 2001, or the (family of the) waitress in Sioux City, Iowa, who was raped and killed on that same day, are entitled to be supported just like the survivors of Sept. 11. Right now in the United States, they aren't."
The report highlighted some areas where U.S. authorities gave protections that exceeded international standards. International law does not, for instance, call for victims to be updated about the offender's place of incarceration or release date, while it is frequent practice to do so in the United States.
The National Crime Victim Law Institute, which reviewed the report, said on its Web site that even though U.S. law exceeds international standards in some areas, the Human Rights Watch report shows that "much more can be done in the U.S. to ensure that victims' rights and their legitimate interests in the criminal justice systems are upheld."