The Lead

Wolf signs bills to ban female genital mutilation, strengthen crime victim rights

By: - July 15, 2019 4:40 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a ceremonially bill signing for crime victims (Capital-Star photo).

With the Legislature out of session for the summer, Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday ceremonially signed six bills designed to boost the rights of crime victims in Pennsylvania.

The legislation Wolf officially signed into law on June 28 are, per his office:

  • House Bill 315, which criminalizes female genital mutilation by making it a first-degree felony.
  • House Bill 502, which amends the Crime Victims Act to allow the victim to be present in any criminal proceeding unless the court determines the victim’s own testimony would be altered by hearing other witnesses.
  • House Bill 504, which prevents prosecutors bringing up the victim’s sexual history or prior allegations of sexual abuse while prosecuting certain crimes.
  • Senate Bill 399, which makes updates to the Sexual Assault Testing and Evidence Collection Act, including requiring the Pennsylvania State Police to create procedures for anonymous victims and establishing timelines for submitting, testing, and storing rape kits.
  • Senate Bill 469, which establishes procedures protecting victims and witnesses with intellectual disabilities or autism spectrum disorder, including allowing for testimony and questioning to take place outside of a courtroom.
  • Senate Bill 479, which expands the list of crimes for which an out-of-court statement made by a child under 12 can be used.”

The commonwealth has in recent years made headlines for bipartisan criminal justice reform, including a landmark law that automatically seals certain criminal records.

But at the Capitol on Monday, state Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said this legislative session has been just as profound for crime victims. She called 2019 a “historic and unprecedented” year, thanks to the passage of nine bills that make “necessary and vital changes” to existing state law.

“At a time when our system is ever-changing and reforming,” Storm said, “we are obligated to ensure that crime victims are at the forefront of everything we do.”

Flanked by several state lawmakers, Wolf said he would “continue to pursue this goal into the fall session.”

Storm also mentioned Marsy’s Law, a proposed constitutional amendment that would enshrine crime victims statutes in the state Constitution.

It does not require Wolf’s signature, as Storm noted. Rather, “it will be the citizens of Pennsylvania who will decide if it will become law,” this November.

Critics, most prominently the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, say Marsy’s Law will endanger the due process rights of the accused.

Storm has rejected those concerns, countering that the amendment will simply give crime victims recourse if their rights are violated — something they don’t have at the moment.

“Marsy’s Law changes that,” she said. “It is in my humble opinion the most important thing we can do for victims.”

Wolf has publicly backed the proposal.

“There’s a balance we’re trying to strike,” Wolf said in a response to a reporter’s question about the ACLU’s objections. “I’m not a big believer in slippery slope arguments.”

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.