53 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2020
Date Written: April 6, 2020
In criminal contexts, a “victim” is typically defined as someone who has been harmed by a crime. Yet the word commonly appears in legal contexts that precede the adjudication of whether a crime has occurred. Each U.S. state guarantees “victims’ rights,” including many that apply pre-adjudication; ongoing “Marsy’s Law” efforts seek to expand and constitutionalize them nationwide. At trial, advocates, judges, and jury instructions employ this word even though the existence or not of crime (and thus of a crime victim) is the very thing to be decided. This usage matters in part because of its possible consequences: it risks obscuring and weakening the defense side of our two-sided system. It matters also because of the underlying impulses that it reveals, and that surface in analogous usages such as the widespread pre-adjudication use of “offender.” When channeled into our criminal system these impulses will recur as pre-judgments of crime, in ways that threaten defendants’ constitutional protections. But we can frame and channel them in a more hopeful way. This Article posits that we turn prematurely to the word “victim” in part because of impulses, upon hearing of harm, rapidly to acknowledge and decry it; and that we rush to “offender” because of a concomitant desire for accountability and answers. Abolitionist work provides a model for honoring those impulses through structures other than a criminal system with whose tenets and capacities they will inevitably clash.
Keywords: Marsy’s Law, Abolition, Prison Abolition, Victims’ Rights
JEL Classification: K14, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation