Crime Victims' Rights Act:

Increasing Victim Awareness and Clarifying Applicability to the District of Columbia Will Improve Implementation of the Act

GAO-09-1024T: Published: Sep 29, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 29, 2009.

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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, among other things: (1) efforts made to implement the CVRA, (2) mechanisms in place to ensure adherence to the CVRA, (3) key issues that have arisen in the interpretation of the CVRA by the federal courts, and (4) perspectives of criminal justice system participants on the CVRA. This testimony is based on GAO's December 2008 report on CVRA, where GAO reviewed guidance and conducted surveys and interviews with criminal justice system participants. GAO cannot generalize its crime victim survey results due to a low response rate. In September 2009, GAO obtained updated information on victim's efforts to enforce their rights.

To implement the CVRA, the Department of Justice (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. DOJ and the courts have also implemented two mechanisms to ensure adherence to the CVRA, including 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 said they were not aware of these mechanisms. If victims are not aware of these enforcement mechanisms, they will not be effective at helping to ensure victims are afforded their rights. GAO also found that DOJ's complaint investigation process lacked independence, impeding impartiality. In July 2009, in response to our recommendation, DOJ revised its victim complaint investigation process such that if investigators who are located in the same office with the subject of the investigation believe that their review of the complaint could bias the investigation or give the appearance of this, they are instructed to inform a designated official at DOJ headquarters. This official may suggest that the complaint be investigated by another DOJ office. Several key issues have arisen that require the courts to interpret various provisions of the law, 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 legal 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, DOJ and court officials believe that one CVRA issue may benefit from a change to the law itself. 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. As to the overall impacts of the CVRA, the victims as well as the DOJ and judicial officials GAO interviewed had mixed perceptions. Most maintained that CVRA has improved victim treatment. For example, 72 percent of the victim-witness professionals--individuals who are responsible for providing services to crime victims and witnesses--who responded to GAO's survey perceived that the CVRA has resulted in at least some increase in victim attendance at court proceedings. Other officials maintained that the federal government and the courts were already treating victims well prior to the act. Victims responding to GAO's survey also reported mixed views on their knowledge of, and satisfaction with, the provision of various rights. For example, 141 of the 167 victims who responded to GAO's survey question regarding participation in the judicial process reported that they did not attend any of the proceedings related to their cases, primarily because the location of the court was too far to travel or they were not interested in attending.

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