In the past, crime victims had few legal rights, such as the right to be informed and heard within the criminal justice system. In fact, thirty years ago, victims did not have the following rights:
- To be notified about the date and time of the court proceedings
- To be notified about the arrest and release of the defendant.
- To be heard and participate at trial, sentencing, and other court hearings.
Since then, there have been various amendments to victim’s rights laws. Illinois Victim’s Rights are part of the state’s constitution; however, many victims and their advocates believe that these amendments are not enough. Regardless, these rights have influenced the way in which the victims and the accused are treated within the criminal justice system.
How Does the Law Define Crime Victims and What Are Their Core Rights?
Victims’ rights laws are not applicable to every victim of a crime. Victims are defined in Illinois’ Crime Victims Compensation Act, and the criteria are quite specific, yet generally include victims of a violent act or a felony larceny. The Illinois victim’s rights, as included in the Illinois Bill of Rights, Section 8.1. include;
- The right to be treated with fairness and respect for their dignity and privacy throughout the criminal justice process
- The right to notification of court proceedings
- The right to communicate with the prosecution
- The right to make a statement to the court at sentencing
- The right to information about the conviction, sentence, imprisonment, and release of the accused
- The right to timely disposition of the case following the arrest of the accused
- The right to be reasonably protected from the accused throughout the criminal justice process
- The right to be present at the trial and all other court proceedings on the same basis as the accused, unless the victim is to testify and the court determines that the victim’s testimony would be materially affected if the victim hears other testimony at the trial
- The right to have present at all court proceedings, subject to the rules of evidence, an advocate or other support person of the victim’s choice
- The right to restitution
How Will the Victim’s Rights Laws Affect the Rights of the Accused?
Kaitlyn Mattson mentioned in her recent article in Chicago Talks, that Illinois Victims’ Rights laws have several flaws. I believe that the basis for many of these weaknesses is that Illinois laws tend to read with the assumption that there exists parity between the victim and the accused; that they are equal players on different sides of the same criminal lawsuit.
In most crimes, the victim is easily identifiable: they were robbed, beaten or otherwise wronged. However, the accused is not a criminal; and according to our justice system, presumed innocent. Despite this constitutional right, the language of victim’s rights laws seems to place the accused in an assumptive role as the perpetrator and unless proven in court, guilty as charged.
Additionally as Kaitlyn Mattson mentioned, many victim’s rights aren’t put in effect until a charge has been filed; as if the victim’s status is in question until that time. Also, if the accused is found not guilty, will that render the status of the victim moot? What happens to his or her rights then?
Consequences for Victims and Accused Alike
The 2004 Crime Victims’ Rights Act entitles the victim to fully participate and object in the court proceedings surrounding their complaint. It commands that the crime victims be involved equally with the defendant, defense counsel, and prosecutor. This means that the victims have the right to state their case in court and object to bail, plea bargains and sentencing. In addition, the act gives the victims the right to discuss with prosecutors regarding the case.
Since these rights are exercised before the accused has been found guilty of the crime, it adds strength to the accusations against which the accused must defend. Providing the victims such a role in the prosecution assumes that the accused has committed the crime; therefore, it violates the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, which is the foundation of our justice system.
Striking a Balance
There needs to be a tempered balance struck between the rights of a victim to be present and to be an active participant in criminal proceedings against the accused. This cannot come at the price of prejudice to the defendant.
But whose responsibility is it to insure that the rights of the accused are balanced with the rights of victims?
The easy answer would be the judge. The more difficult and perhaps more appropriate answer would be the prosecutor. They possess a certain level of discretion that they should exercise to determine how and at what stage to permit the victim the opportunity to invoke their right to be involved. While it is obvious that the prosecutors duty is to protect society, they certainly are not running afoul of this by making sure victims do not dictate guilt before it is justly dealt…or in many cases not.
As crime rates continue to rise and with the growing number of victims in the Illinois’ criminal justice system, policymakers persist on reviewing the current victims’ rights legislation, policies and procedures. However, if legislators and policymakers continue to define the process as “The Victim vs. The Accused,” verdicts will produce winners and losers rather than justice.
We have to ask ourselves in those instances where we are called to balance the rights of victims with those of the accused if we are willing to do so at the price of justice. The best way to think about this is to imagine a situation where at some point in their lives, the table is turned such that the victim becomes the accused. How would you want the process to be balanced?
There is no right or wrong answer in this scenario. However, it is important for all relevant players involved in the process to look at how much a victim should be involved and at what stage depending upon the seriousness and facts of each case.
About the author: This article was written by Joe Suhre and Jason Ott. They are criminal defense attorneys at Suhre Law.