Today, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam have acts protecting crime victims’ rights. These acts give crime victims respect, protection, and compensation for crimes against them. In 2004, the U.S. Congress passed its own Victims’ Rights Act for victims of federal crimes.
Crime victims’ rights acts also give victims a platform for recognition within the judicial system. Before these acts, many victims got lost in the system and had to suffer in silence. The rights given by the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights to those accused of crimes often dominated the victims’ financial and personal losses.
With the enactment of crime victims’ rights acts across the country, victims no longer have to feel they’re alone and marginalized. Crime victims now have a say in the administration of justice as it applies to the accused and to themselves.
Basic crime victims’ rights now include:
- The right to dignified and respectful treatment by prosecutors and law enforcement
- The right to reasonable protection from the person or persons accused of the crime
- The right to notification of court proceedings and parole hearings
- The right to speak at court when the accused is entering a plea or receiving a sentence
- The right to speak at court hearings when probation is under consideration
- The right to speak at parole hearings dealing with the convict’s early release from prison
- The right to speak with the prosecutor about issues related to your case
- The right to restitution from the victim for your damages (Damages include medical bills, counseling fees, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, replacement costs of damaged or stolen property, and other financial losses related to the crime.)
Beginning the Process
Your journey begins once the authorities arrest and charge the person or persons they believe perpetrated the crime. In many cases, especially those involving violent criminal acts like aggravated assault, sexual assault, and robbery, the authorities will let you know they arrested the person who allegedly committed the crime against you and arraigned him before a magistrate. Make sure you write down the prosecutor’s name, telephone number, and email address.
Tell the prosecutor you want to be notified of court proceedings involving the accused. Ask to meet with the prosecutor to explain how the crime has affected you personally and financially. Let her know you’ll prepare a list of the financial losses you sustained at the hands of the accused and will deliver it to her office as soon as possible.
Make sure the prosecutor knows you would like a consultation before she makes any agreement regarding the outcome of the case, especially about matters directly related to the amount of restitution the accused has to pay to compensate you for your losses.
Crime Victims’ Compensation Funds
Today, each state and the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam have a form of crime victims’ compensation fund. These funds are available to compensate victims for losses suffered because of a crime. Taxpayers don’t pay for these funds, they come from the fines and restitution the court orders the convict to pay as a result of plea bargaining or sentencing.
If you suffered losses (damages) from a crime, you have the right to apply for compensation from your state or county victims’ compensation fund. The prosecutor in your case will help you access the fund. You can base your compensation either on court-ordered restitution by the defendant, or an independent claim you make to the fund itself.
It’s very important to have your financial losses well-documented. Make sure you have receipts for medical and counseling bills. If you missed work while receiving treatment for injuries from a violent crime, obtain a written letter from your employer (on company letterhead) verifying the dates you missed work and the amount of wages you lost as a result.
If while getting treatment for your injuries, attending court hearings or meetings with the prosecutors or law enforcement, you had to pay for childcare, make sure you bring receipts that directly correlate to the dates and times of the meeting or court hearings. Take photos of any personal property damage. Attach receipts for the repair or replacement of broken doors, windows, stolen stereo equipment, computers, etc.
Don’t forget, the prosecutor is on your side. While the defendant has to hire an attorney or use a court-appointed one, your attorney is free. The prosecutor represents you and the people of your community. She is your lawyer, and her duty is to convict the accused and to advocate on your behalf. Her duty is to do everything reasonably possible to make you whole, while protecting your rights.
To access your state’s victims’ compensation fund, go here:
National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards
Qualifying for crime victims’ compensation
Before applying to your state or district’s victims’ compensation fund, you need to meet certain guidelines. The following guidelines are a general reference. Your state’s requirements may be different.
- You must have sustained verifiable financial losses (damages), which can include your medical bills, mental health counseling costs, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, child care costs, and property repair or replacement (broken doors or windows, stolen property, etc.) Victims’ compensation funds do not cover pain and suffering.
- You must have cooperated with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and their investigators.
- You mustn’t have contributed to the crime directly or by provoking the accused.
- You must have notified the police within a “reasonable” amount of time after the crime occurred.
- You must submit your compensation claim within your state’s required time limitations.
Unfortunately, crime victims’ rights acts do not cover collateral losses. Collateral losses include psychological injuries and financial losses your victimization causes another person.
Example: Limits of victim compensation
Adrian was the victim of an armed robbery. The trauma Adrian suffered from the robbery made him anxious, depressed, and withdrawn. Before the robbery, Adrian and Susie had a strong and happy relationship. After the robbery, they began to experience problems. Susie began to suffer depression brought on by Adrian’s behavior. To cope, Susie saw a mental health counselor, costing several thousand dollars.
It’s clear Susie’s newly diagnosed depression along with the money she paid for counseling linked to Adrian’s victimization. Unfortunately, the victims’ rights act probably doesn’t cover Susie’s psychological and financial damages.
Victim Impact Statements
Once the jury or judge convicts the defendant in your case, and before he receives his sentence, you have the right to address the defendant in open court. A victim impact statement is the basis for your court address. It’s your written description of how the crime affected you and your loved ones.
In your statement, you can speak about the financial, social, medical, and psychological losses you suffered because of the defendant’s criminal act. In most cases, victims use impact statements in felony trials, often for violent crimes.
Your victim impact statement can accomplish two things. First, it’s healing, helping you find some form of closure. Second, it helps the judge or jury take into account your damages before sentencing the defendant, so they can base their sentence accordingly.
If you don’t want to appear personally, the judge will read your written impact statement privately and then sentence the defendant. If you live in a state that permits juries to sentence defendants, the judge can make your statement available to the jury.
Today, more than ever before, state and federal judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials recognize crime victims’ rights. Victims’ rights acts, victims’ compensation funds, and victim impact statements afford crime victims the right to speak and to receive compensation for losses suffered unnecessarily at the hands of criminals.
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