Pa. voters might be asked to weigh on in victims’ rights
HARRISBURG — The rights of crime victims would be enshrined in the Pennsylvania Constitution under a proposed amendment that could go before the state’s voters later this year, but opponents warn the change has the potential to end up violating the rights of criminal defendants.
The amendment, promoted by a national effort known as Marsy’s Law, and named for a 1983 California murder victim, would enumerate rights for victims that include being notified about all hearings and being allowed to attend them, and the ability to weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.
It would also guarantee “a prompt and final conclusion” of the case and post-conviction proceedings and the right to full restitution.
The amendment passed both legislative chambers unanimously last year. If an identical version passes the House and Senate again before the end of 2020, it will then be up to voters to decide, through a statewide referendum, whether to add it to the constitution.
GOP support: Supporters held a Capitol rally last week to push for its approval, and Republican leaders who have majorities in both chambers have indicated the proposal has wide support and they intend to move it through quickly.
The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to the amendment, warning it has the potential to bring unintended negative consequences. It’s difficult to predict how judges will respond when victims attempt to enforce their rights under the constitution.
State ACLU legislative director Elizabeth Randol said the proposal contained provisions that are too broad and vaguely worded.
She said the amendment could make it harder for defendants to get the information they need to defend themselves, or it might produce arbitrary decisions from judges about how quickly cases should move to trial.
“For us, it’s not about the taking the side of the victim or the accused,” Randol said. “For us, it’s a constitutional issue where there are very good reasons why those rights are afforded to the accused.”
Legal standing: The amendment would not grant victims more rights than they currently have, including under a two-decade-old law that grants Pennsylvania crime victims access to services and information about hearings and the offender’s release from incarceration, said Greg Rowe, interim executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
But it does give victims legal standing to go to court if those existing rights are violated, he said.
“We’ve heard from the victims’ community that there are instances where they aren’t being heard, and there are some instances where the rights in the Crime Victims Act aren’t being respected,” Rowe said.
The Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has “serious concerns” about the amendment, said the group’s president, Dauphin County public defender Brad Winnick.
“It will cause delays in our criminal courts, leading to the delayed disposition of cases, delayed beginning of treatment and the delayed release of incarcerated defendants,” Winnick predicted. “I do not see any protection supposedly granted in this bill to victims that doesn’t already exist in law.”
Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, a leading legislative supporter, says the goal is to put victims “on an equal footing with those that are accused.” She said the amendment will help keep victims in the picture as cases moves through the legal system.
“By raising this voice higher, the judge is going to say, ‘Where’s the victim in this?’” Delozier said. “It’s going to be questioned now, ‘Where is the victim’s voice in this?’”
Adopted in other states: Police in other states have drawn attention and some criticism as they have implemented their versions of Marsy’s Law, which vary from state to state. So far, 11 states have adopted a version of Marsy’s Law.
In Florida, a police chief declined to release the names of some of the five women killed in a bank shooting last month, following voters’ adoption of a constitutional amendment in November. Florida’s law lets victims prevent the release of information that could be used to locate or harass them or relatives.
South Dakota voters amended their Marsy’s Law after the version passed in 2016 reduced how much information police could make public. South Dakota’s new version, adopted primarily to ease the burden on police and prosecutors, requires victims to opt in.
Pennsylvania Department of State officials said election advertising rules mean it is probably too late to place the referendum on the May primary ballot, but it could make the November ballot if it has passed both chambers, been reviewed by the attorney general’s office and is ready to be advertised by Aug. 5.
If voters give their OK at that time, it will take effect at the start of next year.