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Enforcing Victims’ Rights: Elevating Survivor Voices
Since 1981, National Crime Victims’ Rights Week has been a time to celebrate the accomplishments of the victims’ rights movement and reflect on how far we have come since the genesis of the field in 1972. This year's theme—Survivor Voices: Elevate. Engage. Effect Change—calls upon communities to amplify the voices of survivors and commit to creating an environment where survivors have the confidence that they will be heard, believed and supported.
One accomplishment that embodies this year's theme is the advancement of victims' rights enforcement throughout the United States. A crucial component of these rights—and the definition of elevating survivor voices—is the victim impact statement. Through victim impact statements, survivors have an opportunity to voice the emotional, physical and financial impact they have suffered as a direct result of the crime. All victims’ rights must be enforced to make certain survivors are properly heard and seen.
Since fall 2018, the number of victims' rights enforcement lawyers in the country has grown considerably. This is largely due to the hard work of organizations that are dedicated to ensuring that victims’ rights are understood and enforced. One of those organizations is the National Crime Victims’ Law Institute. OVC funded the institute in 2018 to establish rights enforcement legal clinics and support them with training and technical assistance. With that funding, the Rights in Systems Enforced Project was created with the goals of:
- providing victims with crime victims’ rights enforcement and representation;
- raising awareness about crime victims’ rights among prosecutors, criminal justice professionals, attorneys, local bar associations, law students, advocates and other allied professionals working with victims; and
- expanding the body of professionals who will advocate for the enforcement of crime victims’ rights.
The RISE Project has grown to having legal clinics in nine locations: Arizona, California, DC, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, Ohio and South Carolina. RISE clinics ensured that more than 50 attorneys were ready to serve victims with their rights enforcement needs, and they have trained thousands more.
The program emerged because many victims were unaware of their rights and lacked support to assert and seek the enforcement of those rights during the criminal investigation and prosecution of their offender. Likewise, many civil legal attorneys had not incorporated victims’ rights enforcement into their practice. Training and support to better understand crime victims’ rights, the significance of those rights and how to secure enforcement of those rights was also needed for the many professionals that victims and survivors encounter. Over the course of the project, we've learned that providing no-cost legal services to victims helps empower them so they can choose paths forward that work for them. The project has also demonstrated that when rights promised by law are afforded, trust in the system increases. Thus, when no-cost legal services exist from the moment an individual is harmed, survivor agency is improved and the entire justice system benefits.
Making progress in victims' rights enforcement can be a slow process. Nevertheless, the RISE clinics are committed to lifting survivor voices and protecting their rights. In doing this work, their successes are profound and innovative. The RISE clinics are engaging their respective communities about where rights enforcement is most needed. They are providing victim-centered, trauma-informed services. And they are increasing options for victims and survivors to find their justice. Clinics like these are just the beginning, and we are excited to see what’s next in this emerging legal field.
As we commemorate NCVRW this week, let’s honor crime victims and survivors with our actions. Every professional who interacts with an individual harmed by crime—first responders, advocates, criminal justice professionals, medical professionals and social workers—has a role in victims’ rights enforcement. To learn more or request training and technical assistance for your community, visit the NCVLI website.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE RISE CLINICS
The Ohio Clinic took on a critical case about victim standing and the right to protection that will inform victims’ rights in Ohio and across the nation. In the case, a person convicted of domestic violence and a violation of a protective order sought relief from firearm disability—meaning they cannot possess firearms—and the victim opposed the request, citing constitutional rights to safety and protection in the opposition. The trial court did not allow the victim’s full participation, but the Ohio Clinic represented the victim before the Ohio Supreme Court, which ultimately determined that the victim should be heard during the request for relief.
The Arizona Clinic represents child victims in the care of the Arizona Department of Child Safety to ensure they have an opportunity for their voices to be heard through meaningful participation throughout the criminal justice process. As of recent reporting, the Clinic had represented nearly 100 child victims in protection of their rights.
Just before the Florida Clinic launched, a state constitutional amendment affording rights to victims passed into law. Despite the novelty of the law, the Clinic ramped up quickly, hosting trainings and regularly appearing in court on behalf of victims.
The Michigan Clinic was faced with a challenging legal landscape. They had laws affording victims’ rights but, culturally, no one was used to a victim having an attorney. The Clinic often had to fight just to ensure the victim could be represented by counsel—a basic right afforded and enforced in many other states.
The DC Clinic has a unique partnership with MedStar Washington Hospital Center's Community Violence Intervention Program, embedding lawyers with victims' rights enforcement experience in the hospital. In this capacity, they can ensure victims and survivors of violent crime are aware of their rights from the beginning of care through direct support and representation, coupled with training of medical professionals to identify victims’ rights issues.
The California Clinic is training the next generation of victims' rights enforcement lawyers through Loyola Law School at Loyola Marymount University.
The South Carolina and Montana Clinics are implementing lessons learned from prior OVC-funded efforts to develop innovative technology approaches to serve rural crime victims. These Clinics are leveraging their experience to reach crime victims across their states.
The Illinois Clinic trained alongside prosecutors, filed pleadings to protect victim privacy, and, working together with community partners in Chicago, has developed trauma-informed services for underserved victims of sexual violence.