Judges assemble from across US to discuss the rights of crime victims

A significant new thrust in the growing movement in the United States to protect and help victims of violent crime will be initiated this week when judges representing all 50 states meet at the National Judicial College in Nevada to hammer out recommendations to be used in the nation's courtrooms.

This is a ''first-time ever'' conclave of the judiciary for this purpose, says James K. Stewart, director of the National Institute of Justice. The NIJ is co-sponsoring these meetings with the American Bar Association (ABA). Expected to attend the Nov. 29-Dec. 2 sessions are 104 judges - two from each state, plus representatives from Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Also, several victims of crime are scheduled to participate in the Reno conference. They will tell the assembled judges of their personal experiences with the judicial system as their cases progressed from arrest to trial. ''A major thrust of the conference will be a sensitizing experience for the judges, '' Mr. Stewart says. ''For example, in many jurisdictions, everyone is asked if a date for a trial or hearing is convenient - except the victim,'' he explains.

Judge John Daffron, education chairman of the ABA's National Conference of Special Court Judges explains that this unique meeting was initiated by the judges themselves ''because of a growing concern that the problems of the victims should be addressed at all levels of the judicial process.''

Assistant US Attorney General Lois H. Herrington says: ''We anticipate that when these recommendations are developed and implemented, victims of crime will receive the respect, consideration, and compassion that they deserve in the nation's courtrooms.'' Mrs. Herrington formerly chaired the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime.

The Nevada conclave comes on the heels of ABA ''Guidelines for Fair Treatment of Crime Victims and Witnesses.'' These go further than a scattering of state laws or federal legislation which mainly allow judges to order defendants to make restitution to victims or their heirs in crimes involving death, injury, or property loss, says Frank Carrington of the ABA's criminal justice division, which wrote the guidelines.

For instance, they seek to increase the victim's say in the criminal justice process by allowing the victim to inform the prosecutor of the crime's impact prior to recommendation of a plea as well as to file an impact statement prior to sentencing.

The ABA report also urges that victims and witnesses receive advance notice of certain criminal justice proceedings and ''timely'' notification of major decisions in cases in which they have an interest.

Further, victims should be informed about emergency medical and social services available to them as well as laws providing compensation and restitution, the lawyers' group recommends.

Now 35 states have some laws that aid victims - mainly dealing with compensation and restitution. Informally, many police departments, correctional programs, and prosecutors' offices have taken it upon themselves to improve the treatment of crime victims and witnesses. And there are more than 500 local victims/witness programs across the US which provide economic and other aid, accompany victims to court, and offer counseling to those who have been raped or have been physically or mentally harmed.

A steady stream of recommendations for bolstering laws relating to victims has come from groups like the National Organization for Victims Assistance, the Victims Assistance Legal Organization, and the Washington, D.C.-based National Victims of Crime.

These groups generally have lobbied for tougher sentences for those convicted of violent crime, limits on or outright banning of plea bargaining, greater protection for witnesses, and a change in police procedures which would stress victims' rights rather than those of criminals.

Civil liberties groups fear that too much movement in this direction could deprive the accused of certain constitutional guarantees. They are concerned about proposed changes in the almost century-old ''exclusionary rule,'' which bars from the court evidence that has been improperly or illegally gathered. President Reagan and his Justice Department favor including these data if they are gathered in ''good faith'' by the arresting officer. The US Supreme Court is expected to rule in this matter during its present term.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.