Steve Chapman

Criminals are generally despised, and cops are not universally beloved. But one participant in the criminal justice system has no enemies: victims of crime. They're the Sara Lee of American politics. Everybody doesn't like someone, but nobody doesn't like victims.

The movement to protect this group has achieved one success after another. Every state has laws specifying the rights of victims, and 33 have constitutional provisions as well.

In November, Illinois voters will decide whether to add a victims' rights section to the state constitution. Last year, a U.S. House committee held hearings on a federal constitutional amendment, which got a favorable mention in the 2012 Republican Party platform. It's hard to find anyone who opposes the idea.

It's an idea better in the abstract, though, than the concrete. You might forget that providing justice for victims is one of the central purposes of the entire criminal justice system. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging and accommodating the interests of those harmed by lawbreakers. But there are pretty narrow bounds on what more can and should be done on their behalf.

The Illinois law is typical in establishing the right of victims to be notified of court proceedings, be present at trials, get restitution and present statements about how the crimes have affected them. But critics say it lacks an effective enforcement mechanism.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan says some victims are denied what the law promises. The state constitution explicitly prevents them from going to court to appeal decisions by trial judges, leaving little recourse.

She's undoubtedly right. But the cold truth is that a constitutional amendment wouldn't make much difference.

Sometimes witnesses aren't invited to attend plea hearings because the government doesn't want to reveal that the defendant has agreed to implicate other bad guys. Including the victim, said a 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, "could compromise the investigation, as well as bring harm to the defendant and others."

Victims are often barred from trials because they plan to testify. That's not something to lament: Witnesses are normally kept out of the courtroom until they take the stand, to prevent them from tailoring their testimony (deliberately or unconsciously) in response to what other witnesses say.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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