The right of a person accused of a crime to due process of the law is a founding principle of our nation. Defendants’ rights were endowed with the understanding that humans, while primarily well intentioned, are fallible, and in recognition of the advantage of the state in matters against private citizens.
The authors of the U.S. Constitution sought protection for citizens against abuses of power by the state by affording defendants the right to an impartial trial, the right to face their accuser(s), and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
In recent years, six states have considered and approved “Marsy’s Laws,” amendments to state constitutions affording victims of violent crimes a bill of specific rights, such as a guarantee that they will be treated with dignity and respect, be given opportunities to participate in the entire legal process or even decline participation by opting not to testify or be interviewed by the defense, and to be notified of changes to the defendant’s status if they are granted parole or released from jail – even before they are actually tried and convicted.
The movement to establish Marsy’s Laws began after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas was murdered by her exboyfriend in 1983. After his arrest and before the trial began, he was released on bail and confronted Marsy’s family in a grocery store. In 2008, California became the first state to enact an amendment to their state constitution after the proposal was included in the November ballot. The Marsy’s Law foundation aims to establish these rights in all 50 U.S. state constitutions and, eventually, the U.S. constitution.
Pennsylvania has already established a broad range of victims’ rights, most recently with passage of the Crime Victims Act in 1998. Nearly all of the victims’ rights called for by the Marsy’s Law campaign already exist for state residents. Citing a lack of enforcement provisions in the Crime Victims Act, and with the support of the director of the PA Office of Victim Advocate, state senator Guy Reschenthaler introduced Senate Bill 1011 during the 2017-18 legislative session. The Marsy’s Law for PA website, in answer to the question of why the existing law is insufficient, simply states that “Statutory rights are insufficient because victims do not have standing if statutory rights are not enforced — and they can be changed by simple majorities. Victims deserve to have constitutional protections, just as those who are accused and convicted.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stands in opposition to these laws, primarily due to concerns that these laws are poorly written and the provisions could interfere with execution of due process of the law. These laws could also potentially weaken the rights of the accused against the state. South Dakota has already begun the process of passing another constitutional amendment to address some of the inherent problems with the laws as initially written.
In order to ratify an amendment to the PA state constitution, the measure must pass votes in two consecutive legislative sessions and be approved by voters in a ballot election. It was passed by the state House and Senate without challenge during the 2017-18 session, and if it passes the 2018-19 session, it could be included in the November 2019 ballot for Pennsylvania citizens to vote on. As it appears likely that we will be faced with the decision to approve this change in our state’s constitution, we should look to the six states already grappling with the ambiguity of these measures, and ask our representatives to consider whether these laws are necessary, or if our current laws could be bolstered and enforced in a more appropriate manner.
by Cheryl Bauer, a member of the New People Editorial Collective.