A few years ago, it was an occasional voice of protest, albeit an outraged one. It called for help for the aggrieved - the rape victim, the jogger mugged in the park, the mother of a child killed by a drunk driver, the family burglarized repeatedly by a neighborhood gang.
Today there is a chorus of such voices. They are organized into effective lobby groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, National Victims of Crime, Families of Homicide Victims, and the National Organization for Victim Assistance. And they are backing litigation and pushing legislation in almost every state. They are also pressuring congressmen and prodding full implementation of the federal Omnibus Victims' Protection Act that they helped steer through Capitol Hill last fall.
The so-called victims movement seems to be making faster progress than any previous civil rights thrust in United States history. Observers say that is because it is the most broadly based. Crime victims are black and white, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, Democrats and Republicans. Late last year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that close to 25 million households were touched by a crime of violence or theft in 1981. While other crimes have tended to decline since 1975, victim-related offenses (including rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) have remained steady.
Reports of this kind have resulted in recent ''get tough'' laws in places like California and Oklahoma, where stiffer criminal penalties, including longer jail sentences, have brought cheers from hard-liners, but at the same time evoked serious concern from staunch defenders of individual rights.
These states define ''victims'' in terms of the public at large. Crackdowns in the criminal justice system on the lawless few, it is argued, will ultimately minimize dangers for the innocent many.
But what about the individual victim? The young woman who allegedly was sexually brutalized by a group of men in New Bedford, Mass.? The law enforcement officers who were wounded in an assassination attempt on President Reagan's life? The parents of the youngster who was murdered by a former psychiatric patient who authorities said was no longer a threat to society?
In the last instance, a bill now is before the Massachusetts Legislature which would assess a mental hospital $50,000 for ''gross institutional negligence'' and award it to the family of a nine-year-old boy who lost his life.
There is growing legal precedence for doling out these types of damages. For instance, a federal judge in New York has ordered the former boyfriend of a college coed to pay $30,000 to her parents for the ''severe emotional damage'' he inflicted on them when he murdered the girl.
Compensation and restitution for crime victims now is the law in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Also, 15 states have adopted ''son of Sam'' laws (named for convicted murderer David Berkowitz) that freeze proceeds from moneymaking ventures such as book sales of those locked up for capital crimes until claims by victims or their survivors are satisfied.
A federal law now in effect paves the way for judges to order defendants to make restitution to victims or their heirs in federal crimes involving death, injury, or property loss. It also requires guidelines for protecting victims and witnesses in court proceedings.
This law should be a model for the states in crafting their own victims' bills of rights, says David Gilroy, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Victims of Crime. Mr. Gilroy notes that 97 percent of all crime in the US is perpetrated at the state or local level.
Meanwhile, victims' groups are asking: to be kept informed by police of the progress of the investigations against those who victimize others; to be told if defendants will be freed on bail pending sentencing or appeal; and to be allowed to testify in court before final sentencing.
But some critics of victims' rights say ''getting even'' does not really serve the cause of equal justice. Defense attorneys suggest that emotional or physically attractive victim-witnesses could unduly sway a judge. There is disagreement as to when a victim's rights should be considered. Also, damages may be more easily imposed than collected - as in the case of an indigent defendant.
In an article entitled ''Criminal Justice vs. Victim Justice: A Need to Balance the Scales,'' Robert Grayson, chairman of the New Jersey Council on Crime Victims, writes: ''The victims' rights advocacy movement does not advocate the curtailment of any of the rights that protect suspects and criminals. Victims and their advocates do ask, however, that the scales of justice be balanced.''