By Edward G. Rendell
In November, Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution, commonly known as Marsy’s Law, by a three to one margin.
The amendment provides the victims of crimes with protections through constitutional rights. Unfortunately, as things stand today, countless crime victims are still without constitutional protections for these rights and may still be treated unfairly during the criminal process.
The remedial idea behind the amendment was to protect the rights of victims and their families by enshrining those rights as equal to those rights granted to persons accused of crimes.
Importantly, as provided in the amendment, the “victims” are not just the persons victimized by the crimes, but, in addition, any persons, like the victims’ families, who are harmed by the crimes or need to be protected from the accused.
The rights apply whether or not the defendant receives a criminal conviction, except for the parole rights which obviously apply only to a defendant who is convicted and is serving a sentence in prison. Marsy’s Law would provide these victims with a constitutionally protected voice throughout the criminal justice process.
Among the rights provided to victims and their families by this constitutional amendment are the following: the right to be treated with fairness, respect, and dignity; to have their safety considered in bail proceedings involving the accused perpetrator; to be present at and participate in all public court proceedings involving the accused perpetrator; to be protected from the accused perpetrator and anyone acting on his or her behalf; to refuse requests for information from the accused perpetrator; to restitution and return of property; to participate in any parole proceedings involving an imprisoned perpetrator; and to be informed of these rights.
As three out of every four voters decided in November, Pennsylvanians wanted these victims’ rights enshrined in the state Constitution to make sure they were permanent and constitutionally protected. These are all rights that crime victims should clearly have, as crime can have devastating lifetime effects on victims and their families. It is precisely because these rights were not enshrined in the Pennsylvania Constitution that they were submitted to the voters in November. These rights are so fundamental that the voters may have been surprised to find that they were not already in the Constitution.
After all, we have read far too many stories of victims and their families being terrorized or even killed by an accused perpetrator or his cohorts, and I’ve seen firsthand how the justice system continues to harm and mistreat victims in the courts.
Before my years as mayor of Philadelphia and governor of the Commonwealth, I was elected to serve as the District Attorney of Philadelphia and did so for eight years.
As a new district attorney, I was determined to make a change in the courtroom, and was committed to standing up for the City and its victims. I knew from the six years I had served as an assistant district attorney under then District Attorney (and later U.S. Sen.) Arlen Specter how easily victims are thrown into the court system, without any sense of what is to come during the process, how the system works, and how to fight on behalf of themselves or their loved ones.
And, most of all, it was incomprehensible that the victims and their families could be prevented from participating in a parole hearing for an imprisoned perpetrator who was found guilty of a crime.
Pennsylvania is only one of 15 states that does not protect victims’ rights in its Constitution. Victims deserve to have their voice heard, be informed, and be treated with dignity and respect throughout the justice process.
The ACLU and the League of Women Voters have brought a lawsuit to prevent these protections for victims’ rights from being embedded in the Pennsylvania Constitution.
It is my hope that the courts will allow the will of the voters to be implemented so that the rights of the victims and their families will have an equal place alongside the rights of those accused of crimes.
Pennsylvanians who approved this constitutional amendment last November should continue to make sure that their voices, and the voices of victims across the Commonwealth, are heard.
Edward G. Rendell was governor of Pennsylvania from 2003-2011, mayor of Philadelphia from 1992-2000 and the elected district attorney of Philadelphia from 1978-1985.