I found this quote on the website for the Larimer County, Colorado District Attorney’s office. It is a neat sentiment: well-intentioned, not overly ambitious. It is, in other words, a fitting description of the aims of victims’ rights laws.
It is also utterly untrue.
The “right to be heard” is not a right in the ordinary sense of the term. It is not actually enjoyed by the vast majority of crime victims. There is no criminal court where victims may go to plead with authorities to take up their case, if theirs is one of the vast majority of crimes that go un-prosecuted for any one of a hundred reasons.
Other than murder, there is far less than a guarantee that even serious crimes will be taken up by the court. And prosecution rates for murder are far less than most people would imagine: authorities in Houston last week announced that they were stepping up efforts to “do something” about 600 murder cases that had foundered despite identifying a suspect:
More than 600 accused killers from the past four decades have yet to see the inside of a Harris County courtroom for their crimes, according to the Harris County district attorney’s office.
Records show that a handful of those jumped bail, fleeing the area before they could be prosecuted. But most were suspects who were never arrested, said Assistant District Attorney Russell Turbeville. . .
The push to find the fugitives was sparked in part by the case of Tho Minh Quach, who was charged with murdering his neighbor more than 20 years ago, but who disappeared and now will never stand trial because investigators did not try hard enough to find him.
One county, forty years, six hundred un-prosecuted murder suspects. How can this be?
In reality, virtually all crimes result in nobody being held accountable, a situation that has taken an extraordinary toll on hundreds of millions (yes, hundreds of millions) of crime victims since criminologist Milton S. Eisenhower lamented the 1 1/2% incarceration-for-crime rate in 1969. Here is Eisenhower speaking in 1970, twenty-two years before crime rates peaked in the early 1990’s:
There remains one very obvious reason for mounting crime in our society: the increasing failure of law enforcement agencies to cope with it. Consider the grim statistics. Probably 10 million serious crimes were committed in the United States last year. About half of these crimes were never reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only 12 percent of those 10 million crimes resulted in the arrest of anyone. Only 6 percent resulted in the conviction of anyone, and this 6 percent included many pleas to lesser offenses. Only 1 1/2 percent resulted in the incarceration of anyone. And of those who were incarcerated, most will return to prison another time for additional offenses. As Lloyd Cutler . . . remarked on these statistics: ‘It would be hard to say that crime does not pay. The sad fact is that our criminal justice system, as presently operated, does not deter, does not detect, does not convict, and does not correct.’ (Violence: The Crisis of American Confidence, ed. Hugh David Graham, Johns Hopkins Press, 1971)
Hundreds of millions of victims of unresolved crimes walk the streets, and yet, virtually nobody, not even a fraction of a percent, resorts to vigilantism — this despite hysterical claims by mostly-liberal commentators that we must remain vigilant to hold back the horrifying threat posed to society by emotionally wounded, vengeful victims of crime.
I have long wondered why it is that so many people to the left of the political center despise and fear victims so much more than they despise or fear criminals themselves. Self-loathing, I think lies at the root of this phenomenon, self-loathing busked up by education at the hands of other self-loathing people who are entirely convinced that our justice system is over-reaching and cruel.
To say that the types of statistics mentioned above do not enter into classroom discussions of justice is to wildly understate the case. The only type of literature taken seriously in the classroom is the literature of the wrongly accused (too numerous to mention), or rightfully-accused-but-persecuted-anyway (Orestes, Oedipus Rex, The Crucible, The Stranger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Clockwork Orange: how the mighty have fallen).
There is also the litmus test, administered with fierce regularity, that one must show the right type and quantity of empathy for criminals before you may speak about criminal justice at all. This is the price of the ticket — no similar admission fee exists regarding victims, save a few politically sanctioned types.
In the face of such orthodoxy, or rather, repression of facts, perhaps it isn’t surprising that so many people agree, with so very little evidence, that crime victims are too powerful, when they are actually legally powerless.
The exception to this powerlessness, now, consists of being allowed to offer a victim impact statement after the accused has been found guilty of the crime, during the time when his representatives may plead for lenience from the judge. Even this right, however, is strongly opposed by those who feel that the presence of victims in courtrooms represents a sort of perversion of pure justice. Character witnesses for the convict, such people argue, are only right, to keep the vengeful passions of the public in check, but character witnesses against them are — just awful.
When victim advocates began pushing for Victims’ Rights Laws in the 1980’s, reaction was extreme. These laws were written to provide extremely limited rights to the small fraction of victims whose cases actually made it into a courtroom, including the right to be notified about hearings, the right to be notified when one’s offender is up for parole or is being released, and the right to make a victim impact statement before the judge. Victims’ rights laws do not in any way impede on the vast rights afforded defendants before, during and after prosecution: in fact, their modesty underscores the degree to which victims have fewer rights than the public itself, let alone criminals.
Nevertheless, defense attorneys, law professors, and editorial writers (defenseattorneyslawprofessorseditorialwriters) behaved as if granting victims even extremely limited rights to speak in the sentencing phase of the judicial process was tantamount to bringing back witch-burnings, fueled, of course, with trampled copies of the Bill of Rights.
Tom Teepen, a nationally syndicated columnist based in Atlanta, compared the 1999 Victims Rights Amendment to a murderer stalking an innocent and endangered United States Constitution: “The Constitution has just ducked another bullet, but beware the ricochet”; “You can’t be sure this monster won’t walk again,” he wrote, and, nastily:
You almost have to feel sorry for the politicians working the law-and-order hustle. Crime has been falling sharply for several years. . . It is, in short, getting hard to sell criminals to the electorate.
This, in a year when there were 15,000 murders, 90,000 reported rapes, and nearly a million aggravated assaults.
Teepen never writes about criminals with such sneering contempt. His colleague, Cynthia Tucker, has written movingly about crime victimization at other times, but she called the Victims’ Rights Amendment “a crime in itself,” and accused victims of wanting too much:
The system has already kicked in on behalf of the victim — conducting an investigation, arresting a suspect, proceeding to take the suspect to trial.
Gee, thanks. Except when it doesn’t, which is nearly all of the time.
Tucker went on to accuse all politicians who speak up for victims of “pandering” to society’s hatefulness, prejudice, and barely-suppressed violence, then accused the public directly of wishing to undermine all rights of the accused. That the public, let alone victims, might be innocent of nefarious intentions until proven guilty is not the way this game gets played:
This latest bit of pandering by the vice president [Gore] is disgusting but not surprising. It has become an article of faith among centrist Democrats that a tough law-and-order stance in essential to win elections. . . . As hard as it is for most Americans to accept, a suspect is innocent of a crime until convicted by a jury of his peers (or until he pleads guilty).
In twenty years of advocating for and working with crime victims, I have never met a victim who wanted to undermine the justice system or see the wrong person go to jail for a crime. Such accusations are sheer hysteria, and like most hysteria, they arise from a reality that is inverse to the charge.