Criminal Justice Reform for All, Including Crime Victims

Criminal Justice Reform for All, Including Crime Victims
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Thanks to the presidential campaigns, criminal justice reform has been a topic in debates and policy papers. As a trauma psychologist and lawyer, we applaud the national focus on inequities in the criminal justice system and the costs of mass incarceration, particularly to communities of color. Crime victims share concerns about mass incarceration. Though people have rarely asked victims what they want and need from criminal justice reform, one study shows that a small majority of victims want investments in things like education and rehabilitation rather than prisons. However, even this study does not help us understand why this majority want these things or why the minority do not. Is it that the victims would always want these things or is it that the system, as structured, is not affording them an outcome they want? To get criminal justice reform right, we urgently need to expand the conversation to include three key issues facing victims and survivors.


First, victims continue to face barriers to engaging with the criminal justice system that require attention from local communities. For example, our work in Denver and nationally has revealed that lack of accurate legal information and victim blame affect victims’ access to the criminal justice system. These barriers are particularly true for victims of intimate violence. Deciding to report an intimate crime to law enforcement or to participate in the prosecution of an abuser can be life-changing and time-sensitive decisions. To make those decisions, victims need easy access to accurate legal information in plain language to help them decode what happens in the criminal justice process. They need the support of independent advocates and criminal justice professionals who take their reports seriously enough to lead to a thorough investigation. They also need access to attorneys to help them fully understand their rights. Denver and a handful of other jurisdictions have begun to develop survivor-centered resources to help victims access accurate legal information so that they can advocate for themselves, understand the legal process, and access no cost legal counsel when they choose. But these efforts are needed state-by-state where laws and practices vary.


Second, women of color and poor women face unique challenges to justice that must be addressed, most immediately through the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA provides essential funding for criminal justice and community-based agencies working to prevent and respond to violence against women across the country. Since VAWA’s passage in 1994, each re-authorization of the law has included updates to continue the work of advancing women’s safety and access to justice. In recent years, the barriers to justice for Native Americans have come into sharper view. Native American women who are victimized must navigate a patchwork of federal, state and tribal laws with each legal turn further imperiling their safety and eroding their access to justice. In the wake of epidemic numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, a House version of the VAWA re-authorization sought to address these issues. However, the Senate has failed to take up the re-authorization, demanding a so-called “clean” extension of the bill.


Third, victims’ rights enforcement needs to expand nationally. Across the country, all 50 states and the federal government have victims’ rights — sometimes in state constitutions, sometimes in statute.  These victims’ rights provisions detail what victims can expect during criminal justice cases, such as being informed at critical junctures in cases or allowing them to be heard at pretrial release or at sentencing. Where violations of the accused rights have been earnestly litigated, victims’ rights enforcement has lagged behind. This lag has been brought into stark relief recently with the case against Jeffrey Epstein. It was greeted with novelty that the victims had attorneys and were fighting for their rights to be afforded, and yet those rights have been the law for 15 years. Just last week the Courtney Wild Crime Victims’ Rights Reform Act of 2019 was introduced into Congress to strengthen victims’ rights and ensure resources for rights enforcement. Further, evolution of victims’ rights is critical to keeping pace with changes and challenges nationally. 


If we are to engage in earnest reform of criminal justice and secure a fair and balanced system, we must champion the rights of all individuals impacted by criminal justice, victims and accused. Failure to include victims’ rights in our national conversation about criminal justice reform means that we will, at best, have partial reform. As survivors and advocates have pointed out, this conversation could start by asking presidential candidates to address victims’ rights in debates and other public fora. More substantively, we urge need action to re-authorize and pass key federal provisions as well as vigorous enforcement of victims’ rights nationally.


Anne P. DePrince, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Psychology at University of Denver. Meg Garvin, JD is executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute, and clinical professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School.

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