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Let's remember victims of crime
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April 18-24 is National Victims' Rights week, a time of recognizing those who suffered at the hands of criminals and those who work to protect and assist victims of crime. Crime victims are the silent sufferers within our nation.The mainstream media tends to focus more on the criminals, their rights, plight in the prisons and the defenses provided on their behalf rather that on their victims.

The 2010 National Crime Victims' Rights Week seeks to increase public awareness of the rights, needs, and concerns of victims and survivors of crime in the United States, no matter their country of origin or their creed. The theme this year is "Crime Victims' Rights: Fairness. Dignity. Respect."

On April 21, there will be a special gathering from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the Stanislaus County Court lawn at 1100 I Street in Modesto to pay tribute to victims of crime and their families. There will be an emphasis on gang violence and the destruction to both victims and the community as a whole. This event is open to the public, and I encourage everyone to attend as a show of support. Crime victims need the recognition and support of the public, and by focusing on them instead of just the criminals, we will help strengthen our communities.

More than 25 million individuals in the United States are victims of crime each year. Of those people, over 6 million are victims of violent crime. The stated objective of the United States government is to "strive" to "ensure" that all victims "...are afforded legal rights and provided with assistance as they face the financial, physical, spiritual, psychological, and social impact of crime." While this is a laudable goal, it is interesting that we "strive" to take care of victims' needs while at the same time, criminals are guaranteed certain rights and protections under the law. In short, there are no guarentees for victims other than financial and property loss, injury (sometimes death) and emotional pain. And on top of this imbalance, victims often end up being treated like defendants during the trial process.

The state of California has various programs available to victims of crime. Violent crime victims, rather than those who suffer property losses only, will find these programs more helpful. Included in these programs is the Restitution Recovery Program, which allows the courts to order convicted defendants to reimburse victims for financial losses. The kinds of losses covered include lost wages, medical bills, injuries sustained, damage or replacement of property or posessions, legal fees, etc. The restitution plan works in some cases, but more often than not, those convicted have no visible resources with which to pay back their victims. Crime victims may also seek recompense in the civil courts, but this too is limited by the defendant's ability to pay.

There is also the question of whether parents are liable for the [illegal] acts of their children. According to California state law, if the offender is a juvenile, the offender's parents or legal guardians may be held responsible for victim restitution as ordered by the court.

The programs specifically designed to assist victims of violent crimes are different from defendant-restitution programs, in that the government itself provides direct financial assistance to violent crime victims. In California, the program is called the California Victim Compensation Program (CalVCP). At least part of the funding for CalVCP is derived from the federal government. Persons eligible for this program are physically injured or threatened with physical injury as a result of a crime or act of terrorism that occurred in the state. This also applies, but is not exclusively limited, to: parents, spouses or children of the victim. Of course, persons involved in the commissions of the crimes are not eligible for any kind of compensation. Their medical costs, however, are covered by the taxpayers or free services from hospitals.

There is good intent with the effort to recognize the plight and needs of victims. The National Victims' Rights Week is a good start, but in the end, it is largely symbolic only. Real change will come about when society places victims' rights and needs on the same par (or above) as afforded to criminal defendants. In the meantime, individuals, service groups and organizations, neighbors and the faith community should rise to our responsibilities to support our fellow citizens in need.