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Section Objective

This section discusses how particular sectors of the victims' rights movement strengthen the criminal justice system while furthering a "tough on crime" agenda.

Chapter Outline

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The success of social movements very often depends upon their ability to capitalize on opportunities created by shifting political and social structures. The Victims' Rights (VR) movement has achieved enormous levels of success and stability because of its ability to take advantage of the social and political forces in the late 1960s and 1970s that helped create the war on crime. As a result, there has been a symbolic and rhetorical shift in the debate on crime- one that inevitably contributes to and justifies the State's law and order approach.

The VR movement's emphasis on individuals affected by violent crime shifted the State's burden from attacking the social causes of crime to simply responding to individual acts of crime. In the 1980s, the Right backed a VR campaign that allowed their supporters to introduce conservative tough-on-crime policies without appearing to be racist or opposed to individual rights and liberties. Politicians eagerly lauded the VR movement's goals and accomplishments while creating permanent funding for them. In fact, VR is the velvet glove that opens the door to the iron fist of mandatory sentencing, increased use of the death penalty, and "three strikes" laws. By passing victims' legislation or funding neighborhood watches, politicians could avoid dealing with issues such as poverty, education and drug abuse by appearing to be actively concerned about the issue of crime.

The role that the VR movement played in justifying harsher punishment was particularly ironic. Many victims had indeed been mistreated by the criminal justice system, including rape victims, domestic violence victims, and children abused by their parents. There was a genuine need for a VR movement, and one grew from the grassroots in the 1970s. But once adopted by the Reagan Administration's Justice Department, the mantle of VR was never extended to victims of police brutality or to those whose clothes, demeanor, or skin color earned them harassment or arrest from a habitual police practice of racial profiling. The profile of a victim promoted by this campaign became a White woman or man, victimized by a person of color who was associated with drugs- a highly selective slice of the wide range of victims of crime.

It is important to remember that the VR movement is comprised of many types of organizations- some conservative, some progressive and some apolitical. There are many organizations that simply provide a range of services such as counseling, support groups and other forms of assistance, which might be receptive to progressive activists. However, this section is primarily concerned with VR organizations that use VR to pursue and justify a law-and-order agenda.

Chapter Contents

Pages 197-214 of Defending Justice, edited by Palak Shah

  • Profile, History, Positions and Analysis of the Victims' Rights Movement
  • Various Victims' Rights Organizations
  • Organizing Advice: Resisting the Politics of Revenge, a Q&A with Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation
  • Organizing Advice: Facing Victims' Rights Groups, a Q&A with Direct Action for Rights and Equality
  • Additional Resources



Defending Justice is a publication of Political Research Associates (PRA), an independent nonprofit research center that exposes the Right and larger oppressive movements and institutions. PRA produces research and analytic tools to inform and support progressive activism.

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