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While it pales beside his many other accomplishments, Ronald Reagan was an early advocate for the rights of victims of crime and deserves major credit for the laws that established their rights in the criminal justice system, as well as for compensation and victim-assistance programs throughout the United States. (While I speak from personal memory, his role in this area has also been acknowledged by legal scholars.) Prior to the Reagan presidency, the very idea of crime victims having legal rights was controversial and generally opposed and even derided by both the prosecution and defense bar. Generally, crime victims were viewed as mere information sources; the criminal justice system was entirely a matter between the government and the defendant, and victims deserved no rights-they had only obligations and duties. For example, a law review article published in 1984 by Pepperdine University School of Law on the subject entitled, “The Crime Victim and the Criminal Justice System,” quoted Thomas Sullivan, then-president of the New York State District Attorneys Association, as having commented on a proposed Bill of Rights for Crime Victims in 1981: “The American system is founded on the principle that violations of penal laws are an affront to society as a whole, the presence or absence of the individual victim who has been harmed by the accused’s conduct is irrelevant.” This was also a time when the U.S. violent crime rates had soared since the late 1960s to about three times what they are today. The annual number of murder victims in New York City was about 2,000-or 50 times that of London and most other major cities in the world. Murder had become one of the top 10 causes of death of American males, and the leading cause of death of African-American males below the age of 44. The violent crime rates for rape, robbery and assault were also far higher then. In early 1981, shortly after the inauguration of Reagan, I was contacted by Frank Carrington (a member of the new Reagan administration Attorney General’s Task Force on Violent Crime and the first American attorney to devote the bulk of his professional time to the rights and interests of crime victims) for testimony and input. The previous year, I had authored an article in an obscure journal entitled “A Bill of Rights for Crime Victims,” and was representing the New York Crime Victims Board in enforcing a law to prevent notorious criminals such as Son of Sam murderer David Berkowitz and John Wojtowicz (the bank robber and hostage taker of Dog Day Afternoon fame) from profiting from the sale of their crime stories to the media at the expense of their victims. Also in 1981, Reagan declared the week of April 19 to be National Victims’ Rights Week, and, following his suggestion, most states followed suit. The following year, Reagan established the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime, chaired by Lois Haight Herrington; established a position in the U.S. Department of Justice to implement the task force’s wide-ranging recommendations; and made a grant to the American Bar Association to commission papers on victim rights from legal scholars and experts. Landmark law was turning point Most importantly, Reagan proposed and signed into law the Omnibus Victims of Crime Act of 1982. This landmark legislation, passed with bipartisan support, provided, for the first time in history, some basic victim rights in the federal criminal justice system, including victim impact statements at sentencing; protection of victims and witnesses from intimidation; restitution from offenders to victims; fair-treatment standards for crime victims and witnesses (essentially rights for victims to receive notice and opportunity to be heard at critical stages of the criminal justice process); and a general tightening of bail laws. The statute also provided for dedicated federal funding ($75 million annually from federal criminal fines and forfeitures) for state crime-victim compensation and victim-assistance programs. Today, there are programs for violent-crime victim compensation in all 50 states, more than 5,000 victim- and witness-assistance programs and hundreds of state laws modeled after the federal legislation. One cannot overstate the importance of these Reagan initiatives. Earlier efforts to pass federal crime-victim-compensation legislation in the eight years previous to 1982 had all been defeated. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the web of laws and programs of today-nearly all enacted in the Reagan years (1981-88)-that provide for some balance among the interests of the government in prosecution, the criminal defendant in due process and the crime victim in due process, security and compensation, but for the efforts of Reagan. Major reform of something as basic as the criminal justice system requires the active support of the president, which had not been the case before, nor has it been since, Reagan’s presidency. Paul Hudson, a lawyer, was counsel to the New York State Crime Victims Board from 1977 to 1987.

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