Guarantee access to services for all victims and survivors of serious and violent crime
From the 1970s through the early 1990s, communities across the United States experienced significant and prolonged spikes in violent crime. Legislators responded with multiple strategies, including two key approaches that have had profound and lasting influences on law, policy, and practice. First, they increased the likelihood and the length of prison sentences for violent, drug-based, and repeat offending in an effort to incapacitate individuals and prevent future crime.1 And second, they created the infrastructure that still constitutes much of the nation’s system of victims’ rights and services today.2
While the U.S. has used relatively long sentences to respond to serious and violent crime for most of its history—though never to the extent that states and the federal government do so today—the creation of victims’ rights and services represented a new development. This marked an important shift that recognized the state has a distinct obligation to help victims and survivors cope with the impacts of serious and violent crime.3
The first generation of government-supported victim services programs were typically designed to support victims and survivors who cooperated with criminal justice system actors to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate their assailants.4 Many laws and policies also assumed that victims and survivors were substantially different and had distinct needs from those who engaged in criminal behavior.5
Since the founding of victims’ rights and services, the experiences of advocates, victims’ services professionals, and victims and survivors have deepened the nation’s understanding of the diverse impact of violent victimization and what victims and survivors need to heal.6 While the earliest government-supported victims’ services often depended on cooperation with law enforcement agencies, studies show that a persistent and substantial percentage of victims and survivors never report their crime to law enforcement.7 It follows that victims’ services dependent upon formal or informal cooperation with criminal justice agencies will face challenges in reaching and assisting this share of the population.8 Such requirements are especially problematic for programs seeking to help highly victimized populations who are distrustful of law enforcement and government.9 This includes young Black males who live in low-income communities. This population is not only the most victimized demographic in the country, but also the least likely to access victim services.10
Timeline of Victims' Rights in the U.S.
Research has also underscored the complex relationship between victimization and criminal offending. Since the 1990s, studies have explored how unaddressed childhood trauma can lead people to engage in a range of self-destructive behaviors, including the commission of crimes.11 A related body of research has found that, when compared to the general population, incarcerated people tend to have experienced higher rates of victimization, with especially acute levels of childhood neglect and abuse.12
The Task Force finds that these insights into violent victimization highlight the need for legislators and other government leaders to update and improve existing victims’ law and policy alongside long sentencing law and policy. The Task Force recommends that state and federal authorities remove unnecessary barriers to services and ensure that all victims and survivors, including people with overlapping offending and victimization experiences, have access to assistance to heal from the impact of violence and trauma.
State and federal authorities should remove barriers and seek to provide all victims and survivors of serious and violent crimes access to services.
State and federal agencies that fund victim and survivor services should support organizations to expand victim and survivor services that have:
- Established records of working with historically underserved populations, and
- Experience serving victims and survivors of serious and violent crime that lead to long sentences, including people with overlapping victimization and offending experiences
Funding agencies should focus especially on supporting organizations that have a track record of engaging young Black males who live in low-income urban communities, as they are the most at risk of being victims of serious violent crime but the least likely to access victim and survivor services.
State legislatures and administrators should remove barriers to victim and survivor services that restrict efforts to engage populations that are underserved and highly impacted by offenses that lead to long sentences. These barriers include formal and informal requirements that necessitate victims and survivors cooperate with law enforcement, as well as rules and practices that deny services to victims and survivors based on criminal history.
All criminal justice agencies should be required to create and maintain a current contact list of resources available to all victims and survivors of serious and violent crime within their jurisdiction.
State and federal authorities should support data collection and evaluation of victim and survivor services for people impacted by the kinds of serious and violent offenses that lead to long sentences. The evaluations should assess the following:
- Effectiveness at engaging and retaining individuals in services, especially people from historically underserved, marginalized and/or highly victimized populations
- Effectiveness at reducing behavioral health symptoms related to trauma and violent victimization, including impulsivity, misperception of threat or danger, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts
- Effectiveness at reducing offending and other criminal justice involvement among individuals who have overlapping victim and offending experience
- Race, gender, age, and other demographic factors of participants