Protect the physical safety, emotional well-being, and financial security of all crime victims and witnesses.
By reporting and cooperating in the criminal justice system, victims often risk repercussions from the accused, friends of the accused, members of the community, or even the victim’s family. These consequences may take the form of violence, threats, or isolation. Many victims who come forward to report crimes become the targets of bullying and online harassment. Undocumented victims risk discovery of their status and deportation if they contact law enforcement. Rural victims—including tribal victims—have special safety needs due to the low number of law enforcement officers covering large geographic areas. Witness protection programs are underdeveloped and underfunded.
Relocation and housing are particular safety needs. Victim compensation in many states can cover relocation expenses but usually only for certain victims—most commonly domestic violence. Others who may need to relocate for safety or mental health reasons, including child victims and their families, sexual assault victims, and survivors in homicide cases, may not be eligible for relocation benefits. Victims of witness intimidation who are not victims of the underlying crime are generally ineligible for victim compensation. Similarly, emergency and transitional housing programs are insufficient to meet the needs of victims. Not only are shelter and housing options for victims of domestic violence insufficient—especially in rural and areas and tribal lands—but there are few such services available for other victims, including victims of elder abuse, victims of trafficking (whether adult or minor), and victims who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Many victims, as well as intimidated or threatened witnesses, need access to protective orders, but most criminal justice officials are only familiar with protective orders for narrow categories of crime—primarily domestic violence but increasingly dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking as well. While judges have the general authority to issue protective orders in other appropriate cases, they are often unaware of this authority or hesitant to use it.
Once protective orders are issued, they must be enforceable. While systems have been created to promote law enforcement access to protective orders, there are still gaps in implementation. The federal Full Faith and Credit law, which requires the enforcement across jurisdictions of protective orders relating to domestic or sexual violence or stalking, does not apply to other protective orders. Furthermore, tribes do not have adequate access to the federal database of protective orders, limiting enforceability of those orders.
In addition, many dangerous offenders—including some released on bail or under a protective order—retain possession of firearms or the ability to purchase firearms. One part of this problem involves a backlog in entering information about convictions and protective orders into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Limited resources to address this backlog may cause law enforcement agencies to prioritize the entry of permanent firearms restrictions (such as felony convictions) over temporary restrictions in protective orders or pretrial release orders—although in some cases a person under a short-term protective order may pose a higher risk than one with an older conviction. There must be adequate resources to remove firearms when appropriate and quickly enter needed information into NICS to block future firearm purchases.
In pursuing victim and witness protection, we support:
- A presumptive right to physical, psychological, and financial safety for all victims.
- The increased availability of protective orders for victims and witnesses whenever appropriate.
- Meaningful firearms restrictions on those under protective orders or convicted of offenses, including increased resources to implement such restrictions.
- Efforts to create a culture that supports victims who seek services and accountability, including actions to counter societal retribution and intimidation that can prevent victims from seeking justice and assistance.