Are measures to honor crime victims more than symbolic?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday honored crime victims. It was a modest victory for two lawmakers, as well as a telling reminder about how victims can shape political agendas.

By an unsurprising but emphatic 422-0, the House approved the 551-word resolution expressing support for this year's National Crime Victims Week that concludes Friday. The week has been commemorated at various times in April since 1981.

"When our families, when our friends and when our neighbors are in need of assistance after a crime, they should not be met with a closed door, but they should be met with open arms," one of the authors of the bill, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said during the brief House debate.

The House discussed the crime victims' measure Tuesday but postponed voting on it until Wednesday. Nearly identical measures co-authored by Costa and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, a former judge, were approved by voice vote last year and by a unanimous vote in 2007.

On its face, the latest version of the annual crime victims' resolution resembles myriad other symbolic statements routinely passed by Congress. This week alone, the House has passed measures supporting Financial Literacy Month, National Child Abuse Prevention Month and National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.

In a similar frame of mind, the House this week has passed three separate resolutions voicing sympathy for the victims of recent shootings in Alabama, recent earthquakes in Guatemala and a mass shooting in Binghamton, N.Y.

"Crime victim issues are not partisan," said Poe, who co-founded with Costa the 51-member Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus. "They are nonpartisan issues and affect everyone in this country."

The caucus sponsors policy briefings as well as providing the legislative underpinning for victim-related bills and resolutions. As in previous years, the resolution's authors rallied support through dear-colleague letters, personal entreaties on the House floor and staff pleading.

Despite unanimous political sympathy for the estimated 25 million U.S. residents who become crime victims each year, however, significant policy disputes remain.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other lawmakers, for instance, have long championed a constitutional amendment uniformly enshrining certain rights for victims of violent crime. Famously, Feinstein became mayor of San Francisco in 1978 when Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by a former supervisor and political rival, Dan White.

A majority of states, including California, Texas and Florida, already extend some of these proposed rights including restitution and notice of judicial procedures, but roughly 16 states including Kentucky and Pennsylvania don't.

Thirteen years after the proposed victims rights constitutional amendment was first introduced, though, it has entirely dropped off the Capitol Hill radar. The proposed constitutional amendment has not been introduced this year, and its critics dismiss the idea as unwarranted.

"I remain unconvinced that an amendment to the Constitution is the best way, or even necessary, to protect and enhance the rights of victims," Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. said in 2003, when the issue last arose before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sympathy for specific crime victims has also driven lawmakers to back punitive measures whose efficacy remains in question. The murder of 18-year-old Fresno, Calif., resident Kimber Reynolds in 1992, for instance, helped propel Costa to co-author a 1994 "Three Strikes" sentencing bill in the state Legislature.

A comprehensive October 2005 assessment by California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's office concluded that it "remains an open question as to how much safer California's citizens are as a result of Three Strikes." The tougher sentencing costs the state an additional half a billion dollars annually, analysts calculated.

"The state will likely face significantly higher future costs resulting from this measure as the striker population continues to grow and age," the California analysts said.

In Congress, lawmakers fund the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime. The grantmaking office now has an additional $100 million to distribute through the big economic stimulus package passed in the first weeks of the Obama administration. The additional state funding includes $11 million for California, $9.3 million for Texas, $4.7 million for Florida, $1.7 million each for North Carolina and South Carolina and $1.8 million for Washington.

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