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The modernization of society requires the development of all its infrastructures. This principle can be observed in the legal system of the United States, which has evolved alongside other aspects of life. However, as it is rather complex, the system has developed unevenly, which has led to rather paradoxical results. For instance, despite being aimed at protecting the rights of people, the law in its development has been known to neglect the rights of the victims of crime.
Despite being in decline up to the middle of the twentieth century, the victims’ rights movement have developed significantly since then thanks to several factors, including the emergence of the field of victimology, the change in social consciousness, and the multitude of movements that sought support and advocacy for the victims of crimes.
Prior to the period of the active development of the victims’ rights movement, the situation was generally unfavorable for them. The American legal system has viewed crime as an offense of the state, which represented people. However, little attention was paid to the impact on the actual individuals when compared with the symbolic act of defying the authority of government. The situation was further aggravated with the introduction of plea negotiation as a substitute for trial in resolving criminal cases (Karmen, 2016).
This process effectively eliminated the victim as an influential force in the trial. In other words, victims did not have the possibility of participating in the trial, offering testimonies, or even, in some cases, being informed of the court’s decision. Additionally, the modernization of society has resulted in the increase in welfare, which, paradoxically, has also contributed to the negligence of the victim’s rights, although it became apparent much later, in the seventies, with the establishment of the first victim compensation programs, aimed initially only on those in need instead of being applied justly.
In the sixties, the change in public perception has reversed the process in several directions. While there are multiple reasons for this, three important milestones can be regarded as the most influential. First, the research by Frank Cannavale has revealed the flaws of the prosecution system: the victims who were feeling neglected and unimportant were less likely to help the justice system, which resulted in dramatic rates of unresolved cases (Doerner & Lab, 2014).
These findings align well with the concepts suggested by the emerging field of victimology, conceived to deal with war victims, and applied to the criminal justice system in the late 1960s. The second milestone was the rising women rights movement. Before the 1960s, domestic violence and rape were both frequent and largely unaddressed, as the criminal justice system did not have the appropriate response mechanism.
This has led to the establishment of Bay Area Women Against Rape, a victim assistance program, in 1972, and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) in 1978, raising the scope to the national level. Finally, the growing number of support groups for victims of crime, such as the Families and Friends of Missing Persons in 1974, Parents Of Murdered Children in 1978, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1980. This, in turn, has triggered the emergence of the advocacy groups, starting with the Crime Victim Assistance Organization in 1976, which has played its part in establishing victim compensation in New Mexico.
The grassroots nature of the movements and the focus on the individual tragedy has led to the rediscovery of the victim’s plight as a powerful political and social tool. It can serve as a driving force for drawing attention to a certain problem and prompting action in a certain direction. At the same time, it can be used to manipulate the public opinion, by both the parties directly involved in crime and the politicians seeking career advancements (Karmen, 2016).
Doerner, W., & Lab, S. (2014). Victimology. New York, NY: Routledge.
Karmen, A. (2016). Crime victims: an introduction to victimology. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.