Commentary: Crime victims must have Marsy’s Law to correct imbalance in justice system

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By Caroline Ruschell, Marcia Roth and Eileen Recktenwald
Special to KyForward

If you’ve ever watched a crime show on TV or witnessed an arrest up close, you know what happens. The accused is usually handcuffed, read their constitutionally-guaranteed Miranda rights, and put in the back of a police car to be taken to jail to face the charges against them. But what becomes of victims – those left behind to deal with the harm?

You might be surprised to learn that, in Kentucky, victims have only a handful of unenforceable statutory rights. In sharp contrast, the accused and convicted enjoy a multitude of enforceable constitutional rights. This creates an automatic imbalance in the justice system against the person who has already been harmed. 

Because the sparse rights that crime victims are provided aren’t currently enforceable, consistency in the manner in which they are treated suffers. A victim in a rural Kentucky county may have an entirely different experience than a victim in a bigger city. This lack of consistency makes navigating the criminal justice system extremely confusing in an already difficult time.

Since 2016, we have been trying to right this wrong by passing Marsy’s Law. Through working with crime victims in our professional capacities, we witness firsthand how victims can often feel re-victimized by the criminal justice system. These men and women have suffered enough. Marsy’s Law will elevate the level of legal protection for crime victims so that it is on par with that provided to the accused and convicted.

Specifically, Marsy’s Law would amend Kentucky’s constitution to ensure crime victims and their families have the enforceable rights:  to notice of court proceedings, to be present at court proceedings, to be heard at any public proceeding in which his/her rights would be impacted (ex/ where release is being considered and safety is a concern), to notification of release or escape of the accused, to proceedings free from unreasonable delay, to be treated with fairness and respect and the right to full and timely restitution. These are basic and commonsense protections that any of us would want if we were in their situation.

Marsy’s Law will be one of the most widely supported issues proposed in Frankfort during the 2018 session. The legislation already has bipartisan support from elected officials, judges, law enforcement and advocacy groups across the state. More than 35,000 Kentuckians have signed an online petition urging passage, and recent surveys show Marsy’s Law is favored by more than 80 percent of likely voters statewide.

This legislation has been thoroughly discussed and vetted in the General Assembly and amongst Kentucky stakeholder groups over the past two years to ensure its soundness. For the thousands of victims across Kentucky, 2018 is the year to stop delaying and finally take action to ensure crime victims are treated with dignity and fairness.

Marsy’s Law is named for Marsy Nicholas, a California college student who was murdered in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend. A few days after her death, her mother and brother walked into a grocery store where they were confronted by Marsy’s accused murderer. Marsy’s family had not been notified that he had been released on bail. Marsy’s offender continued to harass the family throughout the judicial proceedings until he was ultimately found guilty and sentenced.

Marsy’s brother has made it his mission to ensure what happened to his family does not happen to others. While constitutional rights for crime victims are nothing new – 35 other states have them – he created the organization called Marsy’s Law for All. This entity works on passing constitutional-level rights for victims in the remaining states, like Kentucky. Most recently, our neighbors across the river in Ohio passed a similar version of Marsy’s Law to Kentucky’s proposed legislation by one of the largest margins for any constitutional amendment in state history. Now, it’s time to give Kentucky’s voters the same opportunity.

Most people can list the rights of the accused off the top of their heads: the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, etc. Hopefully, one day soon, Kentuckians will also be able to recite a victims’ bill of rights. Crime victims deserve this protection. 

On behalf of victims across the Commonwealth, we urge legislators to unanimously pass Marsy’s Law in 2018. Victims in our state have been voiceless for far too long.

Caroline Ruschell is the Executive Director of the Kentucky Association of Children’s Advocacy Centers; Marcia Roth is the Executive Director of the Mary Byron Project; and Eileen Recktenwald is the Executive Director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs.

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