NEW YORK // The United States, one of the most legalistic societies in the world, is not doing enough to look after the victims of crime or to protect their rights, according to a report published yesterday by Human Rights Watch. The New York-based group said the United States had not incorporated into domestic law many of the recommended standards for the treatment of crime victims set out under international law.
The report, Mixed Results: US Policy and International Standards on the Rights and Interests of Victims of Crime, said cases where victims were disregarded included those where they disagreed with the death penalty and were barred from testifying. Prisoners and police officers were also often denied victim status or services. "Victims of crime and their families have suffered undeniable loss, violence, even death," said Alison Parker, deputy director of the US programme at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Nothing about victims - not their race, gender, views on the death penalty, or their status as prisoners - can justify denying them access to services or to the justice system."
Since the 1970s, crime victims have successfully pushed for greater victims' rights in state and federal legislation. As of 2007, all 50 US states had statutes protecting victims' rights, and 33 states had amended their constitutions to enhance them, said Human Rights Watch. In 1991, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of admitting evidence of a crime's impact on the victim during sentencing in capital punishment cases.
But despite legislation and court decisions, victims still suffer inconsistent protection. Complicating the situation is that the United States has thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country at the local, state and federal levels. "I applaud the way our nation embraced the survivors of the September 11 attacks. But the cab driver who got shot in Baltimore on September 11 2001, or the [family of the] waitress in Sioux City, Iowa, who was raped and killed on that same day, are entitled to be supported just like the survivors of September 11. Right now in the United States, they aren't," said Renny Cushing, who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch and whose father was murdered in 1988.
The organisation cited figures showing that violent crime victims were disproportionately young, black and poor and came from marginalised portions of US society. In 2005, people aged 16 to 24 were victims of violent crime at a rate that was 2.5 times that of persons 35 to 49. African-Americans were crime victims at a rate that was 1.35 times that of whites. Persons in households earning less than US$14,999 (Dh55,000) per year were victims at a rate that was 2.1 times higher than persons earning $75,000 or more.
The report also noted the complexities of victim status, particularly for those who were engaged in a crime while simultaneously a victim of a crime, such as a prostitute who was violently beaten or a teenage girl who was drinking while sexually assaulted. Victim status should also be accorded regardless whether there is any familial relationship between the perpetrator and victim. Some victims' assistance programmes disregarded murders in which the deceased victim and the offender knew each other, thus complicating the surviving family's allegiances.
Access to health care was also patchy and inconsistent across the United States, creating anger and resentment if the perpetrator was imprisoned and able to access free health services. "I know one family where a girl was shot in the head, she's permanently disabled," one legal advocate told Human Rights Watch. "The mom was already working two jobs but had to give up one job because her daughter can't dress herself or feed herself. She's 21 years old, and she's going to be in diapers the rest of her life and have to be fed and dressed and showered, and there was no compensation for ongoing nursing care."
Human Rights Watch urged full compliance with the 1985 UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power, which details the international consensus on best practices. firstname.lastname@example.org