A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Opinion: Marsy’s Law will give crime victims a much-deserved voice in Kentucky’s justice system

By Dorislee Gilbert and Caroline Ruschell
Special to KyForward

Sometimes simply having a voice in the process and being treated with respect makes all the difference. That’s something we’ve heard time and again from survivors as they navigate the criminal justice system.

It’s also quite often the defining factor in whether they feel justice was rendered or if the very system in place to protect them made them feel even further victimized.

As directors of three of the Commonwealth’s major victim advocacy organizations, each of us witnesses firsthand the profound and pervasive impact that acts of violence have upon victims of all ages. We also know that Marsy’s Law is a crucial tool that would safeguard and empower them.

Hundreds of individuals turn to our rape crisis centers, domestic violence support resources, and children’s advocacy centers across Kentucky for help every year. Much of their physical and emotional trauma is visible, but not all is.

Dorislee Gilbert serves as executive director for the Mary Byron Project (MBP), a Louisville-based nonprofit advocacy group seeking to end domestic violence. Caroline Ruschell serves as executive director for the Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) of Kentucky, a coalition of the state’s 15 regional centers supporting youth impacted by abuse.

As our clients seek to navigate the cold, complex legal system in pursuit of justice, many are shut out of participation and input in key processes. After losing so much at the hands of a perpetrator, these victims are further robbed of a vitally important asset — their voice.

Like all states and the federal government, Kentucky provides constitutional rights to individuals who are accused of crimes. But the Commonwealth is one of only 15 states that does not provide victims of crime with any constitutional protections in the criminal justice process.

We can change this. We can give victims the constitutional right to be notified, to be heard, and to be present in the process that seeks to hold their offender accountable to society for the wrong committed against the victim. All we must do is approve Marsy’s Law as part of our state constitution.

You may be asking yourself: Didn’t Kentucky voters already approve Marsy’s Law?

The answer is yes. In 2018, Marsy’s Law passed the General Assembly by wide, bipartisan margins in both the Senate (36-1) and House of Representatives (87-3). Kentucky voters then approved this constitutional amendment by an overwhelming 63 percent of the vote on the general election ballot that fall.

In 2019, the Kentucky Supreme Court made the unprecedented decision to reject the constitutional amendment because of the way it was presented to voters — and crime victims were once again left on the outside of the Commonwealth’s justice system looking in.

But in 2020, we have an opportunity to set things right.

In the current session of the General Assembly, Senator Whitney Westerfield is championing Senate Bill 15 — which is identical to the previous version, with only one substantive change. Marsy’s Law now contains an important new provision guaranteeing that victims have the right to be heard in consideration of any pardon, commutation of sentence, or granting of reprieve.

SB 15 was successfully passed by the Senate on Feb. 25, and is now awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives. The House’s approval is the final step to putting Marsy’s Law back on the ballot before the voters of Kentucky.

Please join our organizations, along with so many other advocates from across the Commonwealth, in contacting your State Representative and asking them to do the right thing for Kentucky crime victims and their loved ones: vote yes on SB 15.

The rights of individuals accused and convicted of crimes in Kentucky are already protected. Let’s ensure that victims’ voices are also heard in courtrooms across the Commonwealth — and that they finally receive constitutional protections allowing them to participate in the justice system as it deals with those who forever changed their lives.

Eileen Recktenwald serves as executive director for the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (KASAP), a coalition of the state’s 13 regional rape crisis centers.

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