In proclaiming this week as National Victim Rights Week, President Reagan is speaking to millions of his fellow citizens who, like himself, have become victims of crime. Yet, unlike perpetrators, victims often find themselves only sideline observers in a punishment process that grants few rights and in most cases little financial redress to those actually injured by wrongdoing.
Fortunately, there is risins concern throughout society about the problems faced by victims, as well as the need for government to provide financial help and practical assistance. The Reagan administration, which has designated the reduction of street crime as a major priority, has already launched a special Justice Department task force on violent crime. As part of its agenda the task force is taking a hard look at what the federal government might do to aid crime victims. That is special objective of White House counselor Edwin Meese, a former criminologist, and was also the recommendation of a preinaugural Republican task force.
In redressing the plight of the victim, criminologists point out that the most important step that can be taken is the strengthening of the criminal justice sentencing and punishment process. Anything less would be merely a short-term solution.
The linkage between victims' rights and the punishment process is perhaps best illusrated by one mother who adressed a ceremony in New York City this week. Referring to the murder of her daughter she said that time and again we see short-term sentences given to the criminals while we, the victims, serve lifetime sentences of fear, grief and violation." What is needed, she said, is for "the judges and all to know that we do not come to the courts for vindictiveness or vengeance. We want only justice. We ask that the victims also be heard in the court. We are tired of being nonpersons in the courtrooms. The defendant sits next to the defense lawyer. Why shouldn't the victim sit next to the prosecutor?"
New York State already has what some experts believe is a model "victim services agency." But the agency's future is ironically clouded by an expected cut-back in federal funds, now that the Reagan administration is planning on phasing out the US Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.
In fact, more, not less services for victims, are clearly needed in most US jurisdictions. Legislation is being considered in New York to initiate a "bill of rights" for victims. A measure somewhat along that the line is also being drafted at the federal level by Sen. Paul Laxalt, a close friend of Mr. Reagan.
The Laxalt bill would require that a judge examine all the psychological, medical, and financial effects of a crime when considering punishment. A few judges around the US, meanwhile, are already requiring wrongdoers to make compensation to their victims as part of their punishment.
Finally, while govenment must not overlook the needs of the victim, it is important that the long-range goal of all persons -- and a properly functioning criminal justice system where there is a true and abiding sense of "law" as applying equally to all persons -- be the creation of a so ciety without either victim or wrongdoer.