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Victim Assistance Program
Government program that provides information and aid to persons who have suffered direct physical, emotional, or pecuniary harm as a result of the commission of a crime.
All 50 states have government-funded entities that provide services to victims of crime. In addition, the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), which was established in 1984 under the victims of crime act, oversees many federal programs that benefit crime victims. These programs provide information to victims about their rights as well as emotional and financial support.
Victim assistance programs appeared for the first time in the early 1970s as part of the victims' rights movement. Victims complained that police and prosecutors did not keep them informed about ongoing investigations and prosecutions. Most importantly, victims' rights advocates argued for the establishment of victim compensation funds. States began to enact victims' compensation statutes and, by 2003, all 50 states had such funds in place.
These laws authorized the creation of programs that pay victims compensation for certain losses associate with a criminal act. Compensation is generally provided for lost earnings, medical expenses, mental health counseling, and funeral expenses. However, these programs do not fully compensate victims because losses are capped at fixed amounts. In addition, victims must satisfy threshold requirements: (1) they must report the crime to law enforcement within a specific period of time (usually 30 days); (2) the crime must have occurred within the state that the claim is made; (3) a claim must be filed with the compensation program within a specific amount of time; (4) the victim must cooperate fully with the investigation and prosecution of the crime; and, (5) the victim cannot have been committing a crime or have been involved in any misconduct connected to the incident. Some states limit compensation benefits only to victims who have low incomes, while other compensation programs may only pay benefits to victims who are physically injured or to the families of victims who are killed.
Though some compensation funds are paid for with taxpayer money, most state programs are funded by fees and charges paid for by offenders. For example, some states require an offender to pay a set penalty fee, such as $50 for each felony charge. This creates a compensation pool, which encourages victims to sue when those victims would otherwise be discouraged at the prospect of trying to make a criminal pay a court judgment.
Apart from compensation programs, federal and state laws mandate that victims be kept informed about the criminal investigation and prosecution. Though police and prosecutors may contact victims, most jurisdictions have employees who serve as victim advocates. Victim advocates counsel victims and their families, update them about the criminal case, prepare victims to testify at trial, and help them apply to the compensation fund. In addition, they assist victims prepare impact statements that are either given orally or submitted in writing to the court before the defendant is sentenced.
Crime victims may also receive restitution directly from the defendant. Judges routinely order the person convicted of a crime to pay for any damage to the victim's property.
Beloof, Douglas E. 1999. Victims in Criminal Procedure. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.
Davis, Joseph A., ed. 2001. Stalking Crimes and Victim Protection: Prevention, Intervention, Threat Assessment, and Case Management. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press.
Jerin, Robert A., and Laura J. Moriarity. 1998. Victims of Crime. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
Office for Victims of Crime Website. Available online at <http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc> (accessed September 5, 2003).