New push to aid victims of crime

The backlash against violent crime in the United States is gathering new momentum.

In its path: what many see as indifferent and unequal treatment of victims by police and in the courts, hospitals, and other institutions, while extra attention is paid to the rights and needs of defendants.

Among developments in recent months:

* The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a state law that allows restitution payments to families of homicide victims as a condition of parole for the convicted murderers.

* California voters approved Proposition 8, the so-called victims' bill of rights, although implementation is awaiting a legal challenge. A bill similar in concept is pending in the Massachusetts legislature.

* New Yorkers gained a new law allowing victims of violent crimes to keep compensation from the state even if they subsequently recover an equal amount of money for their ordeals through civil suits.

Now the Reagan administration is joining the effort with the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime.

The nine-member panel, announced at a White House Rose Garden ceremony last April, has just begun a series of hearings in six cities across the US to take testimony from victims as well as from law-enforcement professionals, social workers, and other concerned persons. Two days of public hearings were held last week in Washington. The panel is in Boston this week and subsequently moves to San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis, and Houston.

Chairman Lois H. Herrington, a former deputy district attorney in Alameda County, Calif., says her group enjoys an mandate from the President: ''There are absolutely no restrictions. (He said), 'Look into the problems, cares, and concerns of victims, and tell us what ought to be done.' ''

The panel's efforts, she says, will differ from previous studies of victimization because those reports ''just sat there after being researched for years, but nobody's ever done anything about it or brought it to the public's notice.''

The task force has found that a major reason victims avoid reporting crimes or subjecting themselves to the criminal justice system is a desire to ''cut their losses,'' Mrs. Herrington says. Having already incurred personal injury or the theft of valuables, they don't want to risk further loss or inconvenience - particularly should the case be continued indefinitely.

She dismisses suggestions that the task force is merely a public relations gesture by an administration that professes concern about crime but has budgeted little, if any, extra money to cope with it.

''We have looked at the criminal steadily for 30 years,'' she argues. ''We have studied him, tried to understand him, given him all the resources. And though I think it's important that we continue our search, people are still being victimized while we're searching . . . and the experts still do not agree. I see nothing wrong (about looking) at the victim. Let's give the victim the resources. Let's give him the understanding.''

Mrs. Herrington says the task force can help achieve such goals as compensation of victims, return of their property, even-handed treatment of their needs by institutions all along the criminal justice process, granting them a say in the setting of bail for those arrested and in the sentencing of those convicted of violent offenses.

''We're not trying to sell fear,'' she says. ''We're not trying to weigh the criminal-justice system. We're trying to achieve balance. When you take the justice out of the criminal-justice system, you have a system that serves only the criminals. And that's really what we have right now.''

One who disagrees is W. Otis Higgs Jr., a Memphis attorney and former state criminal court judge in Tennessee. Such task forces, he says, generate emotionalism that prevents people from thinking reasonably about criminal justice and tends to usurp the authority of public prosecutors.

There is, Judge Higgs thinks, ''very little that can be done to eliminate the waiting at a trial. If you put everybody on trial and sent everybody to prison, the price would be exorbitant. You have to have plea bargaining and light sentences. But these groups generally have an elementary knowledge of the system. They demand a pound of flesh. So you can easily substitute politics for clear-cut understanding.''

Moreover, he says, such task forces threaten a necessary movement to streamline punishment and ''decriminalize our statutes.''

''If that movement takes hold, it will save millions of dollars,'' Higgs says. ''But the tendency of these groups is to move into the area where the victim is happy knowing that the criminal is given the maximum sentence.''

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