June 9-13, 2014 The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

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Chapter 3

Victims’ Rights Laws in the United States

Christine Edmunds and Anne Seymour1

NVAA Module 3

Learning Objectives
Describe 10 major categories of victims’ rights laws.

Identify types of records needed to document losses for victim restitution.

Discuss actions that can be taken to ensure that victims’ rights are enforced.
Thousands of laws have been enacted to provide rights for victims of crime in our nation’s justice systems. However, victims’ rights laws are not consistent nationwide and vary considerably, as do rights for crime victims across different justice systems. Indeed, our nation’s set of victims’ rights laws has been described as a “patchwork quilt” (Office for Victims of Crime [OVC], 1998). This chapter will explore crime victims’ rights, including the evolution of rights, basic rights for victims, and the enforcement of victims’ rights laws.


Crime victims’ rights laws in the United States date back to the late 1800s, with the enactment of a limited number of restitution statutes. In the early 20th century, laws were passed to protect children from abuse and neglect, but these statutes primarily addressed the exploitation of children in the workplace. In 1965, California’s legislature passed the nation’s first law to create a crime victim compensation program. However, it was not until the 1970s that laws providing rights for crime victims in our nation’s justice systems first began to emerge. Throughout the 1970s, states began enacting piecemeal laws for crime victims, but the nation had yet to embrace victims’ rights. With the passage of the first Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights in 1980, Wisconsin ushered in a historic change by focusing on a broad range of rights that addressed victims’ needs and concerns.

According to the publication New Directions From the Field: Victims’ Rights and Services for the 21st Century, “few movements in the history of this nation have achieved such success in igniting the kind of legislative response that victims’ rights activists have fostered over the past two decades” (OVC, 1998, p. 4). In the early 1980s, state laws addressing victims’ rights numbered in the hundreds. Today, there are more than 32,000 crime victim-related state statutes, 32 state victims’ rights constitutional amendments, and comprehensive rights for federal crime victims (National Center for Victims of Crime, n.d.) However, it is not enough to just have laws enacted – the enforcement of victims’ rights has become an important area of focus. These enforcement efforts will be discussed at the end of this Chapter.

The myriad accomplishments relevant to our nation’s passage of victims’ rights laws across the federal, criminal, juvenile, tribal, and civil court systems are documented in “Landmarks in Victims’ Rights and Services,” which was published in the 2006 National Crime Victims’ Rights Week Resource Guide and is available online at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/ncvrw/2006/pdf/landmarks.pdf.


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