The United States has not incorporated into its domestic criminal justice systems many of the recommended standards for the treatment of crime victims set out under international law, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While US jurisdictions, both federal and state, have made significant progress in recent decades, much more can be done to ensure that victims’ rights and their legitimate interests are respected.
In the report, “Mixed Results: US Policy and International Standards on the Rights and Interests of Victims of Crime,” Human Rights Watch analyzed how well the United States is meeting international best practices. Human Rights Watch found that police and prosecutors in some states enjoy very broad discretion over who is to be granted victim status and the extent to which victims are included in the justice process. In some cases, victims who disagree with the punishment being sought in the case – such as the death penalty – have been barred from testifying. Certain categories of victims, such as police officers and prisoners, have also been denied victim status or services.
“Victims of crime and their families have suffered undeniable loss, violence, even death,” said Alison Parker, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “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.”
While international standards require that victims have effective access to the criminal process as it progresses, some states offer victims only the option of “opting in” to victim information services at the beginning of the process, which is often a time of extreme trauma and a difficult time to make decisions.
“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,” said Parker. “Victims should be able to make that decision later, when they are less traumatized, or change their minds at any time.”
According to the report, there are also many instances in which the treatment of crime victims in the US meets or exceeds international standards. For example, many victims have a right to be informed about offenders’ place of incarceration and release from prison, entitlements not required under international law or standards.
While commending those instances in which governments have worked hard to protect victims’ interests, Human Rights Watch called on all jurisdictions in the US to ensure that the definition of “victim” in state and federal law does not arbitrarily deny victims of crime access to their rights and support services, and to allow crime victims to exercise their right to have information about the criminal investigation or about the prosecution at any time in the process.