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PA referendum focuses on crime victims

By ELIZABETH LEPRO
Posted 10/2/19

PENNSYLVANIA — A referendum on the Pennsylvania ballot this November will ask residents to vote on a constitutional amendment that promises to solidify the rights of crime victims.

The state …

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PA referendum focuses on crime victims

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PENNSYLVANIA — A referendum on the Pennsylvania ballot this November will ask residents to vote on a constitutional amendment that promises to solidify the rights of crime victims.

The state constitutional amendment, informally called “Marsy’s Law,” has already passed in the PA House and Senate. It requires that victims of crimes are notified when their accuser is released on bail or up for a public hearing, as well as allows victims to appear in those proceedings. It also protects victims’ right to refuse interviews, depositions or discovery requests made by the accused.

Marsy’s Law originated from the 1983 murder of Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas by her ex boyfriend. Marsy’s brother, Henry Nicholas, has thus far bankrolled the campaign to get Marsy’s Law on ballots across the U.S. He was spurred to create legislation after his mother ran into her daughter’s killer in a grocery store. She was unaware he had been let out on bail.

Pennsylvania officials say that in this state, making Marsy’s Law a constitutional amendment will basically add more credence to a law already on the books.

“Marsy’s Law is really designed to elevate the statutory rights into the Pennsylvania Constitution,” said Lindsay Vaughan, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association (PDDA).

Currently, the 1998 Crime Victims Act in Pennsylvania already requires that victims be notified of hearings regarding their case. Advocates of Marsy’s Law say that act does not provide victims recourse if they’re not properly notified.

If the constitution is amended, “if somebody comes before a judge and says I haven’t been able to notify a victim, it will be up to the court to decide whether it’s right to delay the case,” Vaughan said.

Along with the PDDA, Sen. Lisa Baker and Wayne County DA Pat Robinson back the bill. However, it has one major opponent in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and has received some negative feedback from officials in other states where it’s passed, including South Dakota and California.

Though most of its opponents agree on its good intentions, the ACLU has said that the wording is “vague” and “broad,” and has the potential to deny the rights of the accused to a fair and speedy trial.

“Victims are owed the right to be notified of all court proceedings and to be heard at sentencing after the accused is convicted,” reads a statement from the organization. “But the focus on ‘balancing’ victims’ rights against the accused… runs contrary to the reason why the Bill of Rights was enshrined in the Constitution—namely, to protect the accused, particularly those who are marginalized and unpopular, from government overreach.”

In South Dakota, where a version of the law was approved in 2016, a few officials have said it’s led to longer jail stays while courts wait for victims to be notified, as well as created an overload of paperwork for even minor crimes.

“Arguments have always been made about paperwork and bureaucratic inconvenience,” said Sen. Baker, in response to these complaints. “Those seem very weak reasons for denying affected individuals rightful access to the justice system. It is hard to see how greater participation by those who were harmed or impacted by criminals should be deprived a voice.”

Baker, who has testified on behalf of the bill in the House, said she’s gleaned her understanding of how the process affects victims through “constant interaction with crime victims, their families and advocacy groups.”

Wayne County District Attorney Pat Robinson said he supports the amendment, and does not foresee lengthened jail times or paperwork issues as a result, because he and his colleagues are already abiding by it.

“It really won’t make much of a difference in Wayne County because the things that they are wanting to make part of the constitution, we are already doing in Wayne County and I think in most counties in Pennsylvania,” he said. “In any case where a victim should have input, they’re having input... One of the good things is I’m sure when this goes into effect, [victims will] get some kind of card telling them what their rights are.”

Robinson said he expects, like victims of domestic violence, that if Marsy’s Law is passed, all crime victims will be more fully informed of their rights to not speak with a private investigator, for example, and to be made aware of court hearings.

“The idea behind it is really ensuring victims have the right to be heard and ensuring that victims are able to receive notifications that they’re entitled,” Vaughan said.

Here is the official wording that will be on the ballot November 5, according to Balletopedia:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to grant certain rights to crime victims, including to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity; considering their safety in bail proceedings; timely notice and opportunity to take part in public proceedings; reasonable protection from the accused; right to refuse discovery requests made by the accused; restitution and return of property; proceedings free from delay; and to be informed of these rights, so they can enforce them?”

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