In addition to statutory victims’ rights, nearly two-thirds of the states have adopted amendments to their state constitutions guaranteeing rights to victims of crime. Including crime victims’ rights in state constitutions increases the strength, permanence, and enforceability of victims’ rights. Some state amendments include a few broadly worded rights, while others provide a long list of rights for victims.
Rights that are guaranteed by a constitution are stronger than rights that are set out only in statutes. Incorporating victims’ rights into constitutions also gives those rights a degree of permanence. Statutes can be changed at any time by the state or federal legislature. In contrast, it is relatively difficult to change the constitution of a state or that of the United States. In most states, a constitutional amendment must be passed by each house of the legislature by a two-thirds majority. This must usually be done at least twice, often with a legislative election between votes. Identical language must be passed each time. The amendment is then presented to voters at a general election for ratification. Therefore, in most states the process of adopting a constitutional amendment takes several years. As a result, once crime victims’ rights are incorporated into a state’s constitution, they are likely to remain there indefinitely. In addition, giving victims’ rights constitutional protections generally makes those rights enforceable. If an official or a state agency violates a constitutional right, a court usually has the power to order that official or agency to comply with the constitution.
Although there is no amendment to the U.S. Constitution affording crime victims’ rights, the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA), enacted as part of the Justice for All Act of 2004, establishes the rights of crime victims in federal criminal justice proceedings, provides mechanisms for victims to enforce those rights, and gives victims and prosecutors standing to assert victims’ rights.
Who May Exercise Victims’ Rights
Exactly who the law considers a “victim” entitled to a right is defined by the federal, state, or tribal code. In some jurisdictions, basic rights are afforded only to victims of felonies, while in others, victims of any violent crime, whether felony or misdemeanor, may exercise such rights. Many jurisdictions also provide rights to victims of serious juvenile offenses, extend victims’ rights to the surviving family members of a homicide victim, or to the parent, guardian, or other relative of a minor, disabled or incompetent victim. In some states, a victim’s legal representative or another person designated by the victim may exercise rights on the victim’s behalf.
Along with general rights for crime victims, many jurisdictions have created special rights for certain groups of crime victims with unique needs. These include victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, or human trafficking, or victims who are elderly, young children, or victims with disabilities.