EDITORIAL: If given chance, Pennsylvanians should vote for Marsy's Law for victims' rights
The rights of accused criminals are written into our constitution.
The victims of crimes deserve the same consideration.
That’s why we were heartened to learn that Pennsylvania voters will likely soon decide whether to codify victims' rights in the state constitution, a proposal set to appear on the November ballot.
The state Senate voted unanimously Wednesday, June 19, to give its final approval, putting the state's version of Marsy's Law on the ballot as a constitutional amendment referendum.
If it's approved in November, it will take effect in January. The model law is named for a 1983 California murder victim.
Protecting victims' rights: The proposed amendment would give victims the right to be notified about, attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.
Supporters argue, correctly, that there is a need to guarantee that victims aren't ignored in criminal proceedings. Victims’ advocates often hear stories about victims not being allowed to present statements in court or of not being notified of a defendant's release. That simply should not happen.
There is opposition: Given that background, it seems like Marsy’s Law would be an idea that everyone could support, but it’s never quite that easy. Not surprisingly, there are opponents.
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and defense attorneys, have said they're worried that the amendment could impinge on defendants' rights and that the amendment contains vague, formulaic language that could lead to unintended consequences.
"Marsy's Law will fundamentally alter our criminal legal system and threaten long-established constitutional protections for the accused, including the presumption of innocence, the right to a speedy trial, the right to confront one's accuser, and the right to effective assistance of counsel," said Elizabeth Randol, the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good: Randol’s concerns may have validity. No law is perfect, but, as the old saying goes, we can’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
Police in other states have drawn some criticism for the implementation of their versions of Marsy's Law, which vary from state to state. Six states approved versions of Marsy's Law last year.
Foes of the law also claim that current laws adequately protect the rights of the victims. That is correct — to point. An existing 1998 state law provides crime victims in Pennsylvania with access to services and information about hearings and the perpetrator's release from incarceration.
Victims get legal standing: The proposed amendment, however, would give victims legal standing to go to court if their rights under the two-decade-old Crime Victims Act have been violated. That only seems fair.
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, called its provisions commonsense steps that will improve how victims are treated in the criminal justice system.
"I feel this will really empower victims at a time when they feel powerless," Boscola said.
The fact that the state Senate unanimously approved the proposal certainly tells you where our politicians stand. It’s the rare issue where Democrats and Republicans stand united. Now it will likely be up to the state’s voters to weigh in.
Jennifer Riley, the state director for the national Marsy's Law campaign, said her organization will push hard to make sure the voters are informed about the referendum.
"We are truly going to operate like a statewide political candidate," with field directors, polling and advertising, Riley said.
That kind of campaign, combined with unanimous state Senate support, makes the referendum’s ultimate passage a likely slam dunk.
If that happens, in less than a year, the victims of crimes will have their rights cemented into our state constitution.
For folks who have been the unfortunate victims of crime, it will be a long-overdue change for the better.