Lawmakers push for more aid to compensate victims of crime

Two elderly women on their way home from an evening meeting had their handbags snatched by a gang of youths. Now, more than three years later, memories of the theft linger with the victims.

Equally vivid and disquieting are recollections of a young man working his way through college: He arose one morning last spring to find his locked car broken into and heavily vandalized.

These Bostonians are among some 17.5 million Americans each year whose lives are touched by crimes and who are often forgotten in the administration of justice.

''Our whole system for dealing with crime is geared to prosecuting offenders, not helping their victims,'' laments Karen McLaughlin, an aide to Essex County District Attorney Kevin M. Burke, one of those attempting to come to grips with the challenge.

However, this situation may be changing. Here and across the nation, public officials, crime victims, and activist groups like National Victims of Crime (NVC) are trying to increase aid for victims.

In Massachusetts, the NVC is spearheading an initiative petition drive for a state ''victim's bill of rights.'' Besides providing compensation for crime victims, the plan includes a variety of protective services for them.

But by the time the deadline for collecting signatures arrives in late November, the question may be moot. Support for a victim's assistance measure appears to be building in the state Legislature.

Patterned after laws enacted California and at least four other states within the past four years, the Bay State proposal would give crime victims or their heirs a voice in the prosecution, sentencing, and parole of offenders. Greater security and other services for victims and witnesses also would be ensured through money raised in fines paid by convicted felons.

Such fine surcharges, usually in the $10-to-$20 range, depending on the seriousness of the offense, now are imposed in at least 17 states, including many that do not have a victim's bill of rights.

''The idea of victim compensation is really catching on,'' says John Stein of the National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA). Thirty-nine states plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands provide some form of restitution. But often the sums available are inadequate or their use is rigidly restricted, he says.

Congress and more than 12 state legislatures considered victim compensation proposals this year, some embracing a so-called crime tax. Several of the bills were approved, including the most recent in North Carolina; others either are pending or have been held over to 1984 sessions.

In late July, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo signed a measure that raises the amount of money a judge can order criminals to pay their victims for property destroyed or money stolen and for medical expenses.

The maximum allowed had been $5,000 for a felony and up to $1,000 for a misdemeanor. Under the new law these ceilings can be exceeded under certain conditions.

Although it stops short of providing a complete ''bill of rights'' for victims, a new Delaware statute says the state must notify victims when the person convicted of attacking them is to be put in a work-release program or is up for parole. The state must also publish the names of inmates to be transferred from prison to an outside supervised custody program and publish the crimes the inmates committed.

''The range of actions has broadened massively over the past three years,'' and momentum toward easing the burden of crime victims is gaining at both the federal and state level, Mr. Stein points out.

''What is particularly encouraging to us is that the goal we've been working toward is appealing to both those on the left and right'' of the political spectrum, he adds.

Stein and other victims' rights advocates say they are especially pleased with a federal law passed last fall under which victims have a voice in the criminal's prosecution and sentencing.

The Victims and Witness Protection Act requires ''victim impact statements'' to help guide judges in sentencing and requires payment of restitution by the convicted felon. In cases involving serious crimes the federal prosecutor must consult with the victim, in addition to considering police evidence, before filing charges.

Victim impact statements are especially important, says NVC executive director David Gilroy. He maintains that they ''help humanize the case'' and often lead to tougher sentences.

Several proposals, including ones by US Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey and Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania, are pending in Congress that would set up a federal crime victim fund, supported through fines paid by lawbreakers. Part of the money raised would be given to individual states to help finance various programs to aid crime victims.

A hearing on the Rodino bill is expected within the next few weeks by a House subcommittee on criminal justice.

Meanwhile, within the Reagan administration a similar measure, based on recommendations of the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime, is under consideration.

Besides a ''crime tax'' assessed against convicted offenders, the current Massachusetts proposal would guarantee that crime victims be kept appraised of the status of their cases. This includes giving them an opportunity to speak their piece, directly or through impact statements, during sentencing and when the convict is up for parole.

The money raised through the ''crime tax'' would provide whatever might be needed to compensate victims for property losses, personal injury, counseling, legal fees, and transportation to and from court.

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