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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 1999 /24 Tishrei, 5760

Joseph Perkins

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What about victims' rights? -- HOW FEARFUL ARE YOU about crime in your neighborhood? The Justice Department posed this question to randomly selected residents of 11 cities, both big and small, throughout the country.

Forty percent or more were quaking in their boots in cities ranging from Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles to Springfield, Mass., and Tucson, Ariz. Thirty percent or more were cowering in cities ranging from San Diego and Kansas City to Spokane, Wash., and Savannah, Ga.

The curious thing about these figures is that they come amid cheery reports of the continuing decline in the nation's crime rate. It stands to reason that, if the incidence of crime is diminishing throughout our fair land, the law-abiding citizenry should be far less fearful of becoming crime victims.

But anyone who has any knowledge of the criminal justice system, either directly or indirectly, knows that the system is decidedly imbalanced in favor of criminal offenders.

Indeed, the three to four out of 10 residents in those 11 cities surveyed by Justice know that, if and when they become crime victims (a one-in-seven chance), the prospect that their assailants ultimately will be punished to the fullest extent of the law is remote.

Justice Department figures bear this out.

Of 100 felony complaints filed by private citizens, only 30 result in arrests. Of the 30 arrests, only 20 are prosecuted. Of the 20 prosecuted, only 15 suspects are convicted. Of the 15 convicted, only five are sentenced to prison time of more than one year. And of the five, not even one serves out the full length of his or her sentence.

Clearly, the scales of justice are tilted against crime victims. And that is why lawmakers in Washington who truly have the interests of the nation's 31 million yearly crime victims (including 8 million victims of violent crime) at heart will support a constitutional amendment setting forth the rights of crime victims.

Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is once again championing such an amendment, along with Republican Arizona Sen. John Kyl. The measure is slated for consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.

If it clears the committee, as expected, Feinstein and Kyl will try to muster, yet again, the two-thirds vote they need to move their proposed amendment forward.

In its current form, after 62 previous drafts, the amendment would guarantee crime victims these rights:

-- To be notified of proceedings;

-- To not be excluded from trials and related proceedings;

-- To be heard at certain crucial stages in the process (like release of an offender, acceptance of plea bargaining, sentencing);

-- To be notified of an offender's release or escape;

-- To consideration for a trial free from unreasonable delay;

-- To an order of restitution from the convicted offender;

-- To have the victim's safety considered in determining a release from custody;

-- To be notified of these rights and the standing to enforce them.

Even some lawmakers who profess to empathize with crime victims question whether Congress should go so far as to enshrine a victims' rights amendment in the Constitution. All of the rights that Feinstein and Kyl propose can and should be covered by statutory law, they argue.

But statutory law is inadequate to balance the scales of justice between criminal offenders and crime victims. Because the rights of the criminally accused (including the right to counsel, to due process, to a speedy trial, to an impartial jury of peers, to confront witnesses, against self-incrimination) are protected by the U.S. Constitution.

So, whenever the constitutional rights of the criminally accused come into conflict with the statutory rights of crime victims, the rights of victims are subordinated.

This lack of constitutional rights, says Sen. Kyl, "has caused many victims and their families to suffer twice: once at the hands of the criminal, and again at the hands of a justice system that fails to protect them."

Never in their wildest dreams -- or nightmares -- could this nation's Founders have imagined that so many of their countrymen (and women) would be victimized by crime year by year. Otherwise, they almost certainly would have included victims' rights in the Constitution along with the rights of the criminally accused.

So it is up to the present-day Congress to rectify the oversight on the part of the nation's Founders. The 31 million yearly crime victims deserve no less.

JWR periodic contributor Joseph Perkins is San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and a television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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