Victims Emerge as Key Force for Criminal Justice Reform : Activism: A movement with searing credibility has moved beyond individual rights to become a prime factor in making crime the nation’s No. 1 concern.


The first time Ralph Hubbard visited a prison, he sat alone in the parking lot for half an hour, his stomach churning.

Hubbard, 62, a tough former cop, certainly knew criminals. But now he was facing them in a searing new role. When his only son was shot to death after a senseless argument over a videotape, he joined the swelling army of Americans who know helplessness, frustration and rage as victims of crime.

After the murder, he punched a hole in a wall. He wept almost every day for eight months, alone, too proud to show his tears, on the top floor of his home in Brooklyn.

Eventually, Hubbard’s anguish turned to action.


He became a board member of Parents of Murdered Children of New York State, and that role brought him to Rikers Island, the world’s largest detention center, with 14,800 inmates.

“I could never just stand and forgive the person,” he told a prisoner who asked about his son’s killer. “I wanted to get my gun and go out and find him and blow him away. But I had responsibilities. . . . I did not push that one button that would have made me go over the line.”

Hubbard’s meeting with the prisoners in the Rikers library--a recounting of his tragedy designed to confront criminals with the carnage they cause--is just one example of the activism of the crime victims movement in the United States.

Just as Hubbard ventured where victims did not go a few years ago, advocates for victims can now be found in courts, prosecutors’ offices, churches, hospitals, mental health facilities and social service agencies.


In two decades the movement has grown to more than 9,000 organizations with millions of members, ranging from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the Family Violence Prevention Fund to Concerns of Police Survivors, which helps relatives of slain officers.

In the process, victims-rights advocates have become a prime mover in making crime the nation’s No. 1 concern. They are the centerpiece of media focus on the effects of crime. They are the most numerous voices for stiffer penalties. They are demanding--and increasingly getting--action from police, prosecutors, parole boards and politicians.

“Crime victims have one horrible badge--credibility,” said Jay Howell, a former prosecutor in Jacksonville, Fla., who helped set up the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“The victims movement has shown . . . that it is increasingly well-organized, that it is mobilized, that it is motivated and that it has become a powerful force in passing legislation,” said G. Morris Gurley, vice president of the National Victim Center, a group dedicated to securing fair treatment for crime victims.


And politicians are calling the groups, soliciting support. “Suddenly, everybody is looking and saying: ‘We’ve got to get on the bandwagon,’ ” Gurley said.

Reading the public’s mood at the start of his reelection campaign, Gov. Pete Wilson presided at a crime summit with the mothers and fathers of murder victims. State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, running to be his Democratic opponent, has also been conferring with advocates for victims.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who is seeking a fourth term, has been meeting with victims groups and was the principal speaker at candlelight memorial services in Manhattan commemorating National Crime Victims Week. The city’s new Republican mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, also spoke.

President Clinton has taped a TV commercial against violence directed at children and met recently with a few crime victims at the White House. Administration members were highly visible at a conference on family violence sponsored in Washington by the American Medical Assn., several foundations and victims rights organizations.


Both Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala addressed the meeting with Shalala pledging: “The President has shown his unwavering commitment to our cause.”

Heightened media focus on victims, particularly by TV’s “reality” shows, has added to the national outrage over crime. TV producers are scrambling to find victims with gripping stories that can be converted to potentially high-ratings entertainment.

“There is a feeding frenzy,” said Michael I. Rudell, a New York entertainment lawyer who represents TV personalities and producers. “There is not only inter-network competition. There is intra-network competition between shows.”

The producers usually don’t have to look very far. A murder occurs in the United States every 21 minutes, a robbery every 46 seconds and more than one rape a minute. In 1992, 23% of U.S. households were victimized by a crime of violence or theft.


“Becoming a victim of crime makes victims want others not to have to experience what they did,” said Anne K. Seymour, a longtime advocate for victims who has worked closely with the criminal-justice community. “That is the strength of the victims movement.”

The movement began in 1963 when the government of New Zealand established the first victims compensation program. California started the first program in the United States two years later.

During the 1960s, groups zeroed in on the lack of victims rights in the criminal-justice system. Victims were not kept informed about court cases or notified about vital proceedings. They were forced to wait long hours--sometimes in the presence of their attackers--before testifying. Victims complained they had no voice in the filing of charges, plea-bargaining or sentencing.

Lucy N. Friedman, executive director of New York’s Victim Services, the nation’s largest victim-assistance organization, said: “We would hear these horror stories about rape victims walking into a police precinct and having the desk sergeant yell: ‘Would the victim of the rape last night come forward?’ We would hear the mother of a homicide victim saying that when she asked when the next adjournment was going to be on the case, the assistant district attorney would say: ‘Why do you want to know? You weren’t the victim or you weren’t a witness to the crime.’ ”


In more than two decades, the victims movement has scored some notable successes.

All 50 states now have compensation programs making direct payments to victims for such expenses as unpaid medical bills, mental health counseling and funeral costs.

In 1984, the Justice Department set up the Office for Victims of Crime to administer a fund to funnel money to state compensation programs. The office also makes direct grants to victim assistance organizations. Federal courts and U.S. attorneys collect fines and other penalties from convicted criminals to pay for the fund.

Victims’ bills of rights ensuring dignified and respectful treatment, including the right to participate in key legal proceedings, have been adopted by most states.


All states now include some input from victims in sentencing, with at least 35 allowing victims to appear in court to make a statement before a judge renders a decision.

At least 14 states have passed constitutional amendments that would guarantee victims the right to be present, informed and heard at all key stages of the criminal-justice process. Maryland, Idaho and Utah have such an amendment on the ballot this year.

All U.S. attorneys and many district attorneys have established victim assistance programs. Typically, they notify victims of the key steps in their cases.

The National Victim Center’s legislative database has grown to 20,000 statutes, ranging from laws allowing child victims to provide testimony on videotape to up-to-the-minute information about the status of the state constitutional amendments.


“We have reached the point where the rules are on the books,” said David Beatty, the center’s public affairs director. “Now we are trying to (win) the hearts and minds of people charged with implementing those rules.”

But major problems still exist. Many state compensation funds face serious financial difficulties. Federal contributions vary from year to year, depending on the amount of criminal fines collected, while the number of victims seeking money is rising. In New York state, a backlog of 17,000 claims exists, and the waiting period victims face for payment is about a year.

While many judges throughout the nation order offenders to pay restitution, enforcement often is spotty and many convicted criminals don’t pay.

Meanwhile, victims organizations have branched out, operating shelters and support groups for battered women, day-care centers in courts and student-mediation projects that try to prevent violence.


They also train police officers to be sensitive to victims’ needs and help hospital workers to detect signs of abuse.

In some hospitals, advocates for victims seek out new parents at high risk for child abuse and provide continuing counseling when they go home with their infants.

Since August, 1986, when 14 people were murdered at a post office in Edmond, Okla., organizations in the movement have sent trauma teams to the scenes of 65 disasters--including plane crashes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and mass murders--to help both survivors and rescuers cope with crisis.

“We train volunteers every year who are ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said Marlene Young, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, a Washington group dedicated to victims rights and services.


“The victims movement has moved beyond its original goals,” she added. “Now we are focused not only on the direct victims of crime, but we also can recognize the impact on family members, friends and the community as a whole.”

That is partly why Hubbard made his trip to Rikers Island. Here was an opportunity to put a face on the consequences of violence, to humanize himself and underline his family’s ordeal after the death of his son.

As the prisoners--some of them convicted murderers--listened, Hubbard told them how his wife isolated herself in their Brooklyn home for months after the murder. He recounted how his eldest daughter found him, his eyes red from crying. “ ‘You see these shoulders?’ ” he recalled her asking. “ ‘You made these shoulders so therefore you can cry on them.’ ”

He told how his wife finally snapped out of her depression. He said he recalled to her an incident in which their son had eaten his own son’s sandwich. With a straight face, their grandson said the sandwich was part of his school science project and he had put four worms between the bread, which caused their son to throw up.


The story made his wife roar with laughter. “She was on her knees and holding her belly and she was just going nuts,” Hubbard said.

After that, he said, they stayed up and hugged and talked most of the night, and when Hubbard woke up the next morning his wife was gone. The phone rang. She was calling to say she was out having her hair and nails done.

“That was the breakthrough,” he said.

“There are only one set of tear ducts in the human body,” he told the prisoners, “tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Tears of joy are really large.”