WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday overwhelming agreed to give federal crime victims new rights to be heard at proceedings that affect the fate of the person accused of harming them.
Supporters expect the legislation to sail through Congress and possibly be signed into law this year.
"After the president signs this bill into law, and I know he will, we will be better able to gauge whether additional safeguards may be necessary," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "I am confident, however, that this statute will be successful in protecting the rights of victims of crime."
Under legislation approved 96-1, federal crime victims would be guaranteed notification of significant events that determine what happens to the accused, including parole proceedings (search) and plea bargains. They would also have the right to be heard at those public events, whether it involves a release, plea, sentencing, reprieve or pardon.
"Victims deserve to know about their case," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "They deserve to know when their assailants are being considered for bail or parole or adjustments of their sentences. They certainly deserve to know when offenders are released from prison."
The one senator to vote against the bill was Democratic Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (search) of South Carolina.
Crime victims have complained that they seem to have fewer rights than criminals in the justice system.
Supporters of the bill had wanted a constitutional amendment (search) including the proposed victims' rights, but did not have enough votes in the Senate to force it through. Legislation, though, was expected to have a much easier time.
"I think this is the appropriate way to do this," said assistant Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a former co-sponsor of the constitutional amendment.
"I expect an overwhelming vote," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said after scheduling the vote during National Crime Victims' Rights Week (search).
Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have sought unsuccessfully since 1996 to pass a constitutional amendment on victims' rights.
Frist, R-Tenn., wanted a vote on the amendment but, as in previous years, opponents said they had more than enough votes to block it. Frist canceled the vote after getting an agreement on the victims' rights legislation.
The legislation "will help level the playing field for crime victims by finally giving them a voice in proceedings that so directly impact their lives," Kyl said.
Added Feinstein: "While criminal defendants have an array of rights under law, crime victims have few meaningful rights. This legislation will ensure that victims of crime in America are included in the criminal justice process."
The legislation still needs approval from the House.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said President Bush "believes that victims' rights need to be protected and we look forward to reviewing the legislation."
But the American Civil Liberties Union (search) called the demise of the constitutional amendment "welcome news" and called the alternative "problematic."
"While the proposed alternative is still problematic, it will leave the Constitution intact," said Terri Ann Schroeder, an ACLU legislative analysts.
The new legislation also says crime victims should be able to "confer" with the government lawyer prosecuting the accused. If any of their rights are violated, they can immediately appeal to the federal appeals courts, which can "order such relief as may be necessary to protect the victim's ability to exercise this right," the bill's description said.
The Justice Department also will get $43 million for enforcement and to encourage states to provide these rights in state law.
All 50 states and the federal government have laws guaranteeing some rights for crime victims. In addition, 33 states have constitutional amendments.