View Point

Saturday, February 20, 1999

Court system isn’t
kind to murder victims

Victims' reputations are smeared, families
endure court delays and killers often serve
only a portion of sentence

By Terri Scott


In the courts of our land, murder victims have few rights. Their reputations are often besmirched in order to get the murderer the most lenient sentence possible. The most common method of denigrating the murder victim is to say that he/she used drugs, as though this were a justifiable excuse for murder.

There is no excuse for murder.

Defense attorneys who are representing violent criminals often use every legal means at their disposal to slow down the court proceedings. At times it appears that the prosecution assists them in this process.

Many survivors of murder victims have had their trials drag on for years, which exacerbates the grief and trauma suffered from losing a loved one to murder. Court dates are postponed many times. Survivors are at the whim of a system which requires them to incur large expenses, lost wages and added stress, leading to poor health and health complications.

Just how far the prosecution will go depends on the county you're in and whether the district attorney's eye is on protecting himself and his colleagues from potential lawsuits and media embarrassments, the budget and/or justice.

Even when there is a murder conviction, the average length of time spent in prison for a convicted murderer is just six years. One-fifth of all convicted killers released from prison are arrested within three years for another violent crime. One third of these will be arrested for committing another murder.

This revolving door syndrome for violent offenders is discouraging for prosecutors and is an unnecessary component in the judicial system. Various groups throughout the United States, including Parents of Murdered Children Inc., are working to ensure that convicted murderers stay in prison for the full length of their prison terms.

The problem of prison overcrowding could best be remedied by establishing drug rehabilitation centers and programs for nonviolent offenders. Taken a step further, drug use and abuse could be addressed as a medical issue in our society, rather than a criminal or moral one.

Currently, there are stiffer penalties for nonviolent drug offenders than there are for violent offenders. This jams up the courts, throwing the mentally ill, the violent and the nonviolent into the same criminal category.

Mandatory minimum sentencing has been established for drug offenders, but has not been established for violent offenders. By law in this country, it is currently a greater crime to be a drug offender than a violent one.

Mandatory minimums are the reason so many prisons are booming in otherwise impoverished rural counties across America. The U.S. inmate population has more than doubled since the mid-1980s.

More and more young, nonviolent, first-time offenders are being incarcerated. And more and more violent, seasoned criminals are walking our streets. Killers are being let out sooner to fulfill mandatory minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders.

It is the hope of all survivors that the Victim's Rights Amendment to the Constitution will give victims the right to a speedy trial, and award victims rights equal to those of violent offenders.

Terri Scott is a Hilo resident who is Hawaii representative/survivor
of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children Inc.

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