Crime Victims' Rights Act:

Increasing Awareness, Modifying the Complaint Process, and Enhancing Compliance Monitoring Will Improve Implementation of the Act

GAO-09-54: Published: Dec 15, 2008. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 2008.

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On October 30, 2004, the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA) was enacted, establishing eight rights for federal crime victims and two mechanisms to enforce those rights. The legislation also directed GAO to evaluate the implementation of the CVRA. To address this mandate, GAO reviewed: (1) efforts made to implement the CVRA, (2) mechanisms in place to ensure adherence to the CVRA, (3) methods the Department of Justice (DOJ) uses to monitor performance regarding the provision of CVRA rights, and (4) key issues that have arisen in the interpretation of the CVRA by the federal courts. To conduct its analysis, GAO reviewed guidance materials, victim complaints, and court rulings, and conducted surveys and interviews with criminal justice system participants. GAO cannot generalize its crime victim survey results due to a low response rate.

To implement the CVRA, DOJ, and the federal judiciary have, among other things, revised internal guidelines, trained DOJ staff and judges, provided victims with emergency, temporary housing to protect them and proactively asked victims if they would like to speak in court. Mechanisms to ensure adherence to the CVRA include processes for victims to submit complaints against DOJ employees and assert their rights in court; however, the majority of victims who responded to GAO's survey reported they were not aware that these mechanisms exist, and the lack of independence within the complaint investigation process impedes impartiality. If victims are not aware of the complaint process or their ability to assert their rights in court, these mechanisms will not be effective at helping ensure that victims are afforded their rights. Under DOJ's victim complaint investigation process, investigators are located in the same office with the subject of the investigation, which could bias the investigation or give the appearance of such. If the investigation is biased, DOJ risks that employees' violations of victims' rights may be overlooked. DOJ has a strategic objective to uphold the rights of crime victims, but does not have performance measures in place to assess progress towards this objective. Without performance measures, DOJ may not be able to determine how well it is performing related to the provision of victims' rights. Additionally, DOJ has not required that components with similar victim-related functions submit the same type of data regarding compliance with victims' rights requirements, making it difficult to determine overall department compliance with the CVRA. Furthermore, DOJ guidelines require that all components with victim-related responsibilities incorporate information on adherence with victims' rights requirements into their work plans and into the performance appraisals for their employees. GAO found that 8 of the 14 relevant component agencies have met this requirement for all of their employees and 5 components are in the process of doing so. However, 1 component has not made efforts to this end, which will make it difficult for DOJ to hold employees in this component accountable for their responsibility to afford federal crime victims their rights. Several key issues have arisen in the courts, including (1) when in the criminal justice process CVRA rights apply, (2) what it means for a victim to be "reasonably heard" in court, and (3) what standard should be used to review victim appeals of district court decisions. While judicial interpretation of various aspects of a law typically occurs after new legislation is enacted, there is one CVRA issue that DOJ and court officials believe may benefit from statutory change. The CVRA is not explicit about whether the law applies to victims of local offenses prosecuted in the District of Columbia Superior Court. Without clarification on this issue, judges in this court may continue to differ in whether they apply the CVRA in their cases.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On April 25, 2013, Senators Leahy and Cornyn introduced S.822, which would reauthorize the Justice for All Act, which includes the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA) in Title I. The bill, if passed, would clarify that CVRA should be applied to victims of local District of Columbia crimes that are prosecuted in DC Superior Court or the DC Court of Appeals, in which case our matter for Congressional consideration would be implemented. The bill was placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar on November 7, 2013. As of August 25, 2014, no additional action has been taken on this bill.

    Matter: Due to the differing interpretations among DOJ and some D.C. Superior Court judges as to whether the CVRA applies to victims whose cases are prosecuted in D.C. Superior Court, Congress may wish to consider revising the language of the CVRA to clarify this issue.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Justice (DOJ) updated the Victims' Rights Ombudsman's (VRO) website in November 2010 and the Victim Notification System (VNS) website in June 2011 to include notices regarding the victim complaint process. By utilizing VNS-which is used to notify victims of proceedings related to their cases-in this way, as well as providing information on the VRO website, DOJ may help increase victims' awareness of the complaint process. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the victim complaint process and victims' ability to file motions and petitions for writs of mandamus regarding their rights are effective methods for ensuring adherence with the provisions of the CVRA, the Attorney General should direct all component agencies with victim-related responsibilities to explore opportunities to enhance publicity of the victim complaint process, such as by requiring all relevant components to incorporate this information on their Web sites, to help ensure that all victims are made aware of it.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2011, the Department of Justice (DOJ) posted a notice regarding victims' ability to enforce their rights in court on the Victim Notification System (VNS) website. Whereas other VNS notifications-such as notifications of court proceedings-can be affirmatively sent to victims, according to DOJ, victims have to access the VNS homepage to receive the notice about their ability to enforce their rights. Providing this information on the VNS website may help increase victims' awareness of their ability to file motions. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the victim complaint process and victims' ability to file motions and petitions for writs of mandamus regarding their rights are effective methods for ensuring adherence with the provisions of the CVRA, the Attorney General should direct all component agencies with victim-related responsibilities to establish a mechanism for informing all victims of their ability to assert their CVRA rights by filing motions and petitions for writs of mandamus, such as by incorporating this information in brochures and letters sent to victims and on agency Web sites.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA) requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to establish a process for receiving and investigating victim-related complaints against DOJ employees, and to require training or impose disciplinary sanctions on any DOJ employees who fail to comply with federal law pertaining to the treatment of crime victims. During our CVRA engagement (GAO-09-54) we found a lack of independence within the complaint investigation process that could compromise the impartiality of investigations and result in the appearance of bias in the investigations. We recommended that the Attorney General instruct the relevant component agencies to restructure the process for investigating federal crime victim complaints in a way that ensures independence and impartiality. In response, in January 2009, DOJ formulated a working group to study and review GAO's recommendations, and in July 2009 the Victims' Rights Ombudsman (VRO) revised previously issued guidance to clarify procedures for handling CVRA complaints that may raise actual or perceived conflicts of interest during the investigation. Specifically, the guidance instructs DOJ complaint investigators to notify the VRO of any actual or apparent conflicts of interest, and to notify the VRO if, after contacting the victim, the victim is not satisfied with the initial steps proposed to resolve the complaint, the victim wants the office to continue the internal investigation of the employee, or the POC determines that further investigation of contested issues of face will be required to resolve the complaint. As a result, complaint investigators will have clearer guidance on how to handle conflicts of interest, which will help ensure that the process for investigating complaints will be more independent and impartial.

    Recommendation: To further ensure that the victim complaint process is an effective method for DOJ to ensure that its employees are adhering to the provisions of the CVRA, the Attorney General should restructure the process for investigating federal crime victim complaints in a way that ensures independence and impartiality, for example, by not allowing individuals who are located in the same office with the subject of the complaint to conduct the investigation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: From August 2010 through September 2012, DOJ informed us that it would not implement this recommendation because the Department determined that it would be inappropriate to have one standardized performance measure for all DOJ components, considering that the components have different functions related to the provision of victims' rights. On several occasions we explained to DOJ that we did not recommend that they develop a standardized performance measure, and they could actually develop multiple performance measures that would apply to some and not all components, depending on the role of the components. In January 2013, a DOJ official acknowledged that DOJ had initially misunderstood the recommendation, and asked if GAO would meet with relevant DOJ components to discuss what types of performance measures would be meaningful and relevant. DOJ was not able to schedule this meeting in 2013. In January 2014, DOJ contacted GAO to arrange a meeting to clarify the issue with relevant DOJ components. GAO responded by asking relevant DOJ officials when they would be available to meet. However, DOJ did not provide any proposed meeting dates or times, and DOJ has not responded to any subsequent emails or phone calls from GAO about this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen DOJ's ability to assess the performance of the department regarding the provision of victims' rights, the Attorney General should identify performance measures regarding victims' rights that are aligned with the department's objective to "uphold the rights and improve services to America's crime victims" and the department's strategy of increasing victim participation in the criminal justice process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2011, the Department of Justice (DOJ) informed us that it had developed and disseminated a questionnaire to all DOJ components to determine the extent to which the components were complying with the Attorney General Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance. The questionnaire includes five sections:(1) agency information; (2) investigation; (3) prosecution; (4) corrections and other post-conviction issues; and (5) other, and includes some questions that all respondents must answer. By using a structured questionnaire by which to collect data from DOJ components, and by identifying standard questions that are to be answered by components that have similar roles (investigation, prosecution, corrections), DOJ has implemented our recommendation and will be better positioned to evaluate the extent to which its components are taking the necessary steps to afford victims their rights under the Crime Victims Rights Act.

    Recommendation: To further strengthen DOJ's ability to evaluate the performance of its component agencies, and that of the department overall, regarding the provision of victims' rights, the Director for the Office for Victims of Crime should require component agencies with similar victim-related functions to report the same type of CVRA compliance information, as a means of monitoring overall department performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office for Victims of Crime

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a new Victim Specialist Performance Plan Addendum, which incorporates references to DOJ's requirement to notify victims of their rights under the Crime Victim's Rights Act (CVRA), as well as victim specialist goals to provide case status updates and services to victims. Also, in August 2009, the FBI revised their performance plans for supervisory and non-supervisory positions to include references to compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies, which includes the CVRA. As a result, FBI investigative agents and victim specialists are more likely to be aware of and held accountable for their responsibilities regarding the provision of victim rights. These actions close this recommendation.

    Recommendation: As a means of monitoring employee compliance with victims' rights requirements, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation should incorporate references to adherence to victims' rights provisions in the work plans and performance appraisals of its investigative agents and victim specialists, as required by the Attorney General Guidelines for Victim and Witness Assistance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

 

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