From the foundations of human society and the very earliest sacred texts and documents articulating human rights, the rights of victims of crime have been central to the very concept of civilization. Starting in the 70’s the USA began the modern era of articulating crime victims’ rights into federal and state statutes and in Constitutions throughout the nation. Today all 50 states, territories, military jurisdictions, and the Federal Government all clearly state the rights of crime victims as foundational to our system in either Constitution or statute, or both.
There is a strong bi-partisan movement to include victims’ rights protections in the US Constitution. Please call your Congressional Representative and urge them to sign on.
For more, please see www.VictimLaw.org. Classical victims rights are generally these:
- Right to Attend (all legal proceedings in their case)
- Right to Compensation
- Right to Be Heard (and to consult with the prosecution prior to trial)
- Right to Be Informed (of all matters pertaining to their case, and in advance, in order to be able to exercise the other rights)
- Right to Protection (and to be kept safe from the offender)
- Right to Restitution
- Right to Return of Property
- Right to a Speedy Trial
- Right to Enforcement of these Rights
When the Offender is a Juvenile
Cook County, Illinois in 1889 began the first-ever separation of Juvenile Justice from the Criminal Justice system. Juvenile Justice emphasizes rehabilitation more than the adult Criminal Justice system. The adult system does of course also attempt sometimes to rehabilitate, but also recognizes the legitimate function of punishment.
Juvenile offenders generally depart the system, no matter the seriousness of their crimes, between the ages of 18 and 21, often with no smudge to their records. Most often, they start off their adult age, whether it be 17 or 18, depending on the state, with a clean record. Obviously, some immediately re-offend and quickly enter the adult criminal justice system.
States vary where age “bright lines” are drawn. The line for adulthood varies at around 16, 17, or 18. The lines for “always juvenile” varies around 12, 13, 14, 15 – whatever the state sets. And the middle ground between the bottom age limit before which ALL offenses are juvenile, and after which ALL offenses are adult, exist universally around the world. When crimes are committed in those teen years in the middle, whether the offender is tried as an adult or as a juvenile will depend on the seriousness of the crime and the culpability of the offender.
Some states offer “blended sentences” which detain a juvenile offender in a juvenile facility up to the adult age of 17 or 18, or even up to 25, but then retain them in the adult system for a few more years, transferring them to an adult facility, especially if their behavior warrants such extended detention.
Juvenile offenders have extra resources afforded them in their juvenile justice system. There are many more layers of legal protection, a much higher burden of proof for the prosecution, extended privacy protections, and much more assistance in the way of probation officers, social workers, court-ordered programs, and the like.
Victims Rights in a Juvenile Crime
All of these distinctions for juvenile offenders and the “bright lines” in the law matter to victims of homicide and other extremely serious crimes such as aggravated sexual assault when the offender is a teen. The crime feels the same, and has the same impact on them, regardless of the age of the offender. But the victims of the crimes are treated very differently, depending on if the offender is tried in the juvenile system or the adult system.
Victims of juvenile offenders may have less access to the legal process in many states. There are often greater privacy protections for a juvenile offender, even if they have committed mass murder, unless they are transferred to adult court. Often victims are not even allowed to know offender release issues that might endanger them.
Enforceable Victims Rights
Nationally many states are moving to increase protections for victims of crime by ensuring either through their Constitutions or by statute that the rights of crime victims are able to be enforced. Up to now few enforcement mechanisms have existed in our system that are entirely geared towards protecting the rights of offenders. States like California, Oregon, Arizona, and others have led the way in making sure that even in cases of juvenile crime, victims at least know what is going on with their own cases, and are protected from unnecessary danger. See www.MarsysLawForAll.com for more information.
These victims’ rights have NO impact on the rights of the accused in our society. Victims Rights do NOT compete with or limit the Constitutional protections we afford those charged with a crime in the United States. For more information on your rights as a victim of crime in the state in which you live, contact your state Attorney General, or go to www.ncvli.org for a referral.
Victims Can Cope With Trauma
There are many places that victims can go to get help to survive a traumatic loss. We have a lengthy list of links to victim organizations on this site. The book on the right sidebar What To Do When The Police Leave is an excellent resource. Parents of Murdered Children has chapters in many cities and communities, serving all family members of a murder victim. Many counties, law enforcement offices, and prosecutors offices offer victim staff and social workers that are able to be of help. There are counseling and trauma centers in every major community. And all over the nation, there are certified trauma therapists. It is important that victims seeking therapy after a homicide in their family utilize the services of someone certified in the specialized field of trauma. Most therapists are not properly trained for that specific work. Ask for their certification.
And we found this article to give interesting insight:
Los Angeles Times
After The Tragedy: Vent? Not Necessarily
By Susan Brink, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, July 28, 2008
“THE MORE [Virginia Tech students] can talk about what they’ve lived through, the more that they can be encouraged to emote . . . that gives them some security and insulation against burying those feelings and then having them surprise them later in life.”
In the aftermath of the April 16, 2007, fatal shootings of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, Ablow was simply voicing post-Freudian conventional wisdom: When something horrible happens, vent.
“The common assumption is that in order to successfully cope with a traumatic or disturbing event, people need to talk about it, to express their feelings,” says Mark Seery, psychologist at the University of Buffalo. “And if they don’t, they’re suppressing true feelings and that will cause problems down the road.”
But hold on a minute. That has simply not been proved true for all people in all circumstances, Seery says. His most recent research, in the June issue of Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, shows that after a large-scale traumatic event, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, quickly talking about one’s emotions isn’t necessarily for the best.
“In the immediate aftermath of a collective trauma, it’s perfectly healthy to not want to express your thoughts and feelings,” he says.
In fact, it can do more harm than good. Some people have periods of what psychologists call “healthy denial.” Like Scarlet O’Hara, they cope by promising themselves to think about it tomorrow. Being pushed to give voice to their worst reactions too soon could embed the worst of it in memory and cause them to dwell on the tragedy. And if they can’t or won’t talk, urging them to act against their instincts could make them think that something is wrong with them.
The new study is in line with other mental health research that suggests some things are better left temporarily unsaid — at least for some people. Those who immediately talk about the trauma of an attack or a hurricane can find, as often as not, that airing it doesn’t change the memory and fails to bring relief. Seery found that those who responded quickly to prompts to write online about the attacks had higher levels of stress two weeks later. Months later, they were more likely to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In his bereavement research, James Pennebaker, chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, found that choosing not to express feelings in the face of a death reflected resilience, rather than vulnerability. Pennebaker’s research examines expressive emoting, and research results on bereavement and trauma often overlap.
None of this negates the value of talk therapy or of expressing thoughts and emotions when it feels right. But the new research suggests that widespread use of clinical techniques that are proved to help some situations — like a couple in marital trouble or a depressed person exploring emotions with a therapist — has gotten ahead of the evidence on the best course of mental healthcare after a disaster.
“Rubbing people’s noses in their miserable experiences immediately after is probably bad for a significant number of people,” Pennebaker says.
Debriefers at the scene
Despite a lack of proof that expressing feelings right away is good, the United States has an industry of people, called critical incident stress debriefers, whose job it is to converge on disaster sites and get people to talk about their feelings.
Not necessarily mental health experts, debriefers sent by city or county health, fire or police departments have had training in what to say to encourage emoting after a disaster. They head to scenes of death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, floods in Iowa or fires throughout California, not to mention human-made horrors like the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center or the Columbine or Virginia Tech school shootings.
Yet a 2006 review of studies on such debriefings in the Review of General Psychology found, in general, either no benefit or worse outcomes from the interventions.
“If it’s immediately after an upheaval, it’s completely foolish to do that,” Pennebaker says. “Some people naturally talk and listen to others. If they don’t want to talk about it, they don’t. If they do, they do. They may need help in two months, but they may not want help then.”
Seery’s study confirmed the foolishness of requiring instant emoting from witnesses to a disaster. Focusing on responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he surveyed 2,138 people online at intervals over two years. Part of an existing marketing panel, the volunteers were asked on Sept. 12, 2001, if they wanted to talk about the attacks. About 25%, or 579 people, chose not to respond to the e-mail prompt. Follow-up surveys by Seery and his team at two weeks, then every six months for two years, found that those who had nothing to say online after the attacks had better psychological functioning over the next two years. “In particular, they had lower risk of symptoms of PTSD,” Seery says. “Not wanting to talk didn’t predict any negative effects or delayed reaction.”
Those who did want to talk about it right away had a variety of things to say. Some merely said something like, “This is terrible.” Others went on for paragraphs. “We found that when people had more to say, that predicted worse psychological function and worse physical health over time.”
It could be that those who needed to talk about it were more deeply affected, he says, and would need more help in coping over a longer time. But it’s also possible that being immediately asked to describe in detail what happened can add to the trauma. “If I go to a therapy session and people are telling me that I should want to talk about it, and I don’t want to talk about it, and then I’m told that’s an unhealthy response . . . well, that’s one plausible route to creating harm,” he says.
If there are two kinds of people, those who want to talk and those who don’t, then pushing the latter into talking might lock the trauma in memory, causing them to dwell on it. Those who don’t feel a need to vent may be more resilient and have better coping skills, Seery says, and those who feel compelled to talk may be naturally more distressed by it and will continue to be deeply affected.
In any case, neither type should be asked to do what doesn’t come naturally. “I come from a pretty stoic Kansas farm family,” says Denver psychologist Shawn Smith. “I was taught to suck it up, and shown ways to do it, like humor. If somebody sat me down and made me relive it over and over again, or describe things in detail — things that I’d heard and smelled — I’d be going against what I was taught, and not equipped to do it.”
Seery found that those who didn’t want to talk about the trauma remained healthy, no doubt using a variety of coping skills — spit-shining the house, working around the clock or heading to the shopping mall or golf course to get their minds off it. They may be doing more than distracting themselves. They may be putting pain on hold until they muster up more strength or gain perspective.
A concern about mental health overreaction led a group of 19 psychologists to pen a letter to the American Psychological Assn. after the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. “In times like these, it is imperative that we refrain from the urge to intervene in ways that — however well-intentioned — have the potential to make matters worse. . . . Psychologists can be of most help by supporting the community structures that people naturally call upon in times of grief and suffering. Let us do whatever we can, while being careful not to get in the way,” they wrote.
Smith, who posted the letter on his psychology blog, IronShrink.com, has been moved by public tragedies as much as anyone. “But in regard to my own mental health, I’d like to pause for a moment, take a breath and assess the situation,” says Smith, who teaches crisis intervention at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology. “Do I really need a counselor today? Probably not.”
Talkers need listeners
It’s after the dust of the initial shock has settled that talking about it can help. Taking pen to paper, to explore feelings, can be an equally good outlet, especially when people find themselves thinking obsessively about a trauma.
But it helps only if thoughts go forward, not round and round. “Thinking can become rumination, going from A to B and back to A to B,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychologist at UC Riverside and author of “The How of Happiness.” “People ruminate about negative things, and they get more pessimistic.”
“All things being equal, talking can be as good or better than writing if the person you’re talking to is all accepting, is not hurt by what you say and is not judgmental,” says Pennebaker.
And there’s the rub — finding a tolerant listener. “All of us have had an experience where we watch a look of horror wash across someone’s face,” Pennebaker says. “If people talk about something really personal, and the other person does not validate them, they’re likely to be worse off than if they hadn’t said anything.”
Whatever the form, it’s most helpful to mental healing when the words create a meaningful story. Such a story can move someone from the event, through insight and toward acceptance or a solution. “There has to be growth. There has to be change,” Pennebaker says. “Otherwise, it’s not therapy. It’s theater.”
Most of the hundreds of people he has studied who have been through a traumatic experience are able to speak or write themselves toward a deeper understanding of what happened. “What I’ve loved about this work is that I think people are naturally their own best therapists,” he says.
- Family and friends in Massachusetts of murder victims Beth Brodie and Janet Downing have organized efforts to oppose the parole of their killers – something they were not told about until AFTER the law was changed and the killers came up for release.
- Laura Haynes Shimek gives powerful testimony before Iowa court granting parole opportunities to her mother’s murderer. Read her moving victim impact statement.
- Victim’s father tours nation with teen killer’s grandfather with programs to provide alternatives to youth violence.
- Illinois victims’ family member awarded for her leadership in helping the elderly.
- Grieving Ohio family’s story featured in two-part national Dr. Phil show in which teens present at the scene definitively fail polygraph tests.
- A Fallen Officer Hero from Texas killed by teens.
- A Michigan father works for justice for his murdered daughter.
- Tom Mauser, father of a Colorado Columbine massacre victim, writes wonderful book Walking in Daniel’s Shoes.
- We support the bi-partisan national movement to include victims rights in the U.S. Constitution.
- More news coverage of victims’ families of teen killers here and here.