Law Would Affirm Victims’ Rights
Pennsylvania has a history of supporting crime victims and ensuring that all 67 counties have free and confidential services for those impacted by crime. We also have strong statutory provisions that ensure that victims have rights. Those include rights to be heard, to be present, to confer with prosecutors, to have victims’ safety weighed during bail decisions, to full and timely restitution, to be notified of court-related events and the release of the offender, and to speak in court at sentencing and before parole or pardons boards. Pennsylvania falls short in enforcement of these rights. As commonwealth victim advocate, I hear victims often complain that their rights have been violated. It is my job to advocate on their behalf. The problem is, neither I nor anyone else can do anything for these victims because there is no enforcement or accountability in our laws when one of these rights has been violated. In the past four years, the Office of Victim Advocate has had 94 complaints from victims whose rights were violated. A narrative has emerged that a provision within Marsy’s Law, which would assure victims have the same rights as accused people, would violate the U.S. Constitution and a defendant’s right to confront an accuser. This is inaccurate. In Pennsylvania, victims do not have to respond to requests made at the behest of the accused or their legal counsel. The law would simply codify existing protections and practices into our state constitution. This existing provision does not currently — and would not under Marsy’s Law — apply to the commonwealth, which is required by law to respond to discovery requests made on behalf of defendants. This provision will not affect a defendant’s ability to gather information or present trial evidence. Accused people have never had the right to depose victims in Pennsylvania criminal cases. This language simply ensures victims are not put at risk of being threatened, traumatized and unnecessarily harmed by defendants. Marsy’s Law is about the enforcement of victims’ rights protections, while not changing or subverting rights of the accused. It’s about balancing our values. Our laws tell communities we value the experiences of defendants more than that of victims. Some may argue that victims’ rights should have always been in the state constitution. However, Pennsylvania, like many states, took a statutory approach when victims’ rights began to sweep the nation in the 1980s and ’90s. Pennsylvania is one of only nine states without constitutional amendments protecting victims’ rights. This is a wrong we must right. If we value the experience of the crime victim and believe victims should be treated with dignity, respect and sensitively, as our preamble suggests, then we must elevate their rights and ensure they are protected and enforced no less vigorously than that of the accused.