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Senate vote puts victims’ rights amendment before voters

June 20, 2019

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania voters will decide whether to enumerate victims’ rights in the state constitution, a proposal likely to appear on the November ballot.

The state Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to give its final approval, putting the state’s version of Marsy’s Law on the ballot as a constitutional amendment referendum.

The proposed amendment would give victims the right to be notified about, attend and weigh in during plea hearings, sentencings and parole proceedings.

Supporters argue there is a need to guarantee that victims aren’t ignored in criminal proceedings.

Opponents, including the ACLU and defense attorneys, have said they are concerned the amendment could impinge on defendants’ right to a fair and speedy trial, and that the amendment contains vague, formulaic language.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said the legislation will “contribute to a greater sense of justice being served here in the commonwealth.”

Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, called its provisions commonsense steps that will improve how victims are treated in the criminal justice system.

“I feel this will really empower victims at a time when they feel powerless,” Boscola said.

An existing 1998 state law provides crime victims in Pennsylvania with access to services and information about hearings and the perpetrator’s release from incarceration.

The proposed amendment, according to state prosecutors, would give victims legal standing to go to court if their rights under the two-decade-old Crime Victims Act have been violated.

The General Assembly did not convene any hearings to consider what she considers problematic provisions, said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

“Marsy’s Law will fundamentally alter our criminal legal system and threaten long-established constitutional protections for the accused, including the presumption of innocence, the right to a speedy trial, the right to confront one’s accuser, and the right to effective assistance of counsel, among others,” Randol said.

The referendum could make the November ballot if it gets reviewed by the attorney general’s office and is ready to be advertised by the first week in August.

Jennifer Riley, state director for the national Marsy’s Law campaign — the model law is named for a 1983 California murder victim — said her organization will push for passage of the referendum.

“We are truly going to operate like a statewide political candidate,” with field directors, polling and advertising, Riley said.

If it’s approved in November, it will take effect in January.

Police in other states have drawn attention and some criticism implementing their versions of Marsy’s Law, which vary from state to state. Six states approved versions of Marsy’s Law last year.

Last week, the Kentucky Supreme Court voided a proposed constitutional amendment passed by voters in November because the question was deemed to be vague and misleading.

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This story has been corrected to show that Sen. Lisa Boscola is a Democrat, not a Republican.

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This story has been corrected to say the Northampton County senator is Boscola, not Oscula, and that the law is Marsy’s Law, not Marcy’s Law.

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