How the Pa. General Assembly is trying to expand rights for crime victims

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

Editor’s note: This story was updated to better reflect the comments of ACLU counsel Nyssa Taylor*

Last year, Pennsylvania state lawmakers reached a bipartisan consensus to begin undoing the excesses of the tough-on-crime era by embracing criminal justice reform. Now, they’re coalescing around another issue: expanding rights for victims of rape, child abuse, and other crimes.

The House and Senate have approved a dozen victim-centered bills over the last past week, including a few identical versions of the same bill passed by both chambers.

They include restrictions on cross examinations of rape victims, eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, making it easier for people with intellectual disabilities to testify in court, as well as a formal bill of rights for crime victims known as Marcy’s Law.

“These laws make perfect sense to me,” Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, a nonprofit civil liberties group for children, said of a package of bills from the Senate. “Anytime you adopt laws and policies that allow victims, especially child victims, to speak and expose the truth, and therefore expose predators, then the commonwealth is a better place for all. And especially for children.”

The bills also had widespread legislative support. The Senate bills all passed unanimously, while the most negative votes any House bill received was 15.

Even if opposition within the Legislature was scarce, the bills still had their critics in the advocacy community.

Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed most of the proposals, said lawmakers should instead focus on protecting the constitutional rights of the accused*, who have “the whole power of the state … coming down” against them.

“The Legislature often wants to respond to the crime du jour,” Taylor said. “We have enough crimes to prosecute everyone … The elimination of defendants’ rights is not going to correct what has already happened.”

Here’s a list of the legislation that passed the Legislature this week:

Expanding the ‘tender years exception’

Bills in the House and Senate propose expanding the state’s “tender years exception,” which allows young crime victims in violent criminal cases to submit out-of-court statements rather than testifying in court.

One proposal would add child sexual abuse, child exploitation, incest, human trafficking, and child welfare offenses the list of crimes covered by the tender years exception.

“Children who have been abused have been violated emotionally as well as physically,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Providing for out-of-court statements helps remove kids from the pressure and intimidation of confronting their abuser in a situation that can easily prove overwhelming.”

Another would extend the same exception to adults with intellectual disabilities and autism.

“These victims should not be made to suffer more because they cannot necessarily communicate effectively in court,” sponsor Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, wrote in a memo seeking support for a House bill.

Defining victims’ rights

Six bills would codify the rights of crime victims in state law.

In the Senate, Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, proposed a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors, mostly dealing with the collection and preservation of evidence.

Rights for sexual assault survivors are already enshrined in federal law, but since the majority of assault cases are prosecuted at the local and county level, Langerholc said, Pennsylvania lawmakers should adopt a bill of rights for the state.

The House approved Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment, which would ensure crime victims are aware of an accused perpretator’s progress through the criminal justice system.

It would also give victims recourse if they are not informed of a release date or parole hearing. Victim’s would then have the right to, for example, have a hearing reheld.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, has portrayed the amendment as a counterweight to the state’s ongoing criminal justice reforms. State civil rights groups like the ACLU claim the bill could have a large unintended consequence of snarling up legal proceedings.

A third proposal, with nearly identical versions passing in both chambers, would limit the circumstances under which a crime victim could be excluded from his or her trial.

Another bill that each chamber passed would prevent trial lawyers from quizzing about any sexual abuse or assault and incest they experienced in their past.

Punishing child abuse

The House passed two bills as part of an attempt to address child abuse uncovered in last year’s statewide grand jury report on the Catholic Church.

The two bills combined eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, expand by five years the civil statute of limitations, and open a two-year retroactive civil window for victims to sue the perpetarors or the instiutions that enabled them.

House passes child sex abuse statute reforms, kicks them to Senate, Scarnati

The proposals, like Marcy’s Law, are constitutional amendments and will require passage next session and a referendum to become law.

What’s next

All of the bills have only passed one chamber, and will need approval from both the House and the Senate before proceeding to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

Identical bills will likely become part of negotiations between chambers as they decide which legislation to advance. When each chamber acts on the other’s bills is an open question and could take months.

For example, it took the House more than 18 months to vote on a Senate bill addressing child abuse statute of limitations last year.

The statute changes have been a sticking point for the Senate, where President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s opposition to retroactive justice and concerns around constitutionality have brought most of the chamber’s Republican majority into opposition as well.

The House is hoping its refined approach could change help bring the Senate onboard with the changes.

Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment, already passed the Legislature last year. If it’s passed by the Senate, the proposal will go to the voters for final approval.

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