Op-Ed: How the justice system violates victims’ human rights


The United States is failing victims of crime in a multitude of ways. The Trump campaign emphasizes the betrayal felt by families whose loved ones were killed by immigrants in the country illegally. The solution they seek — mass deportation — is based on a myth of immigrant criminality, but these families’ frustration with the justice system is not unique. Across the country, crime victims too often experience a system that violates their human rights.

Despite the vocal emphasis on law and order and, more specifically, victim’s rights by some lawmakers, prosecutors and law enforcement, America’s everyday record on protecting the rights of victims is decidedly mixed. The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network estimates that tens of thousands of rape kits around the country go untested for DNA evidence, hindering arrests and prosecution of attackers. Military service members who report sexual assault face retaliation that too often goes unpunished. One woman who reported a sexual assault to Washington, D.C., police told Human Rights Watch, “Reporting to the police was far more traumatizing than the rape itself.” Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in the U.S., and widespread failure to investigate reported cases further undermines victims’ confidence in the justice system.

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system extend to the treatment of minority victims of crimes, and not just those who are killed by the police. A 2013 California survey of crime victims found victims of violent crime are more likely to be low-income, young, and Latino or African American. Yet these same victims were also more likely to be unaware of services available to them. Immigrants who are in the country illegally are particularly vulnerable to victimization. From a farm worker raped by a foreman to a mother whose 10-year-old daughter was assaulted in an isolated stairwell, they have told Human Rights Watch how fear of the police and deportation have kept them from reporting crimes and accessing the criminal justice system.


All victims want justice but they do not uniformly support the harshest possible penalties.

Even as they promise justice for victims, policymakers sometimes fail to take into account how victims of crime define justice. All victims want justice but they do not uniformly support the harshest possible penalties. The same California survey of victims, conducted by Californians for Safety and Justice, found the majority believe too many people are sent to prison, and that victims in general preferred investments in mental health and drug treatment programs over prison for offenders by a three-to-one margin. Certainly, not all victims of crimes committed by immigrants see swift and harsh immigration enforcement as justice. The farm worker raped by her foreman told me she was disappointed to see her attacker, who was also in the country illegally, summarily deported rather than held accountable in the U.S. criminal justice system.

When law enforcement agencies take extra steps to reach out to minority or undocumented immigrant victims, they do so in order to protect the public safety of everyone. A 2011 report by the American Immigration Council found more than 70 cities and states have policies that prevent police agencies from asking residents who have not been arrested about their immigration status, in order to encourage all victims of crime to come to the police for help.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck in 2012 decided immigrants without papers who were arrested for low level crimes wouldn’t be turned over to federal authorities. Taking a “too heavy handed” approach to immigration matters, he told The Times, “has eroded public trust…. We need to build trust in these communities and we need to build cooperation or we won’t be prepared [to police the city].”

Policymakers who want to truly protect victims’ rights should do more than cite specific sensational killings in support of harsh penalties for undocumented immigrants. The diversity of opinions among victims reflects the multifaceted nature of justice and the values it must balance — deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation, restoration and even mercy. Policies that seek to protect all victims, that recognize the inherent dignity of all persons, are the smartest and most effective way to keep us all safe.


Grace Meng is a senior researcher in the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinionand Facebook