Politics

A new bill pending in Kentucky’s General Assembly aims to send protections of so-called “victims’ rights” to Kentucky voters for ratification as a constitutional amendment.

The measure — known nationally as Marsy’s Law — would insert language into the state constitution to protect crime victims’ rights to notice of proceedings, protection from the accused through the process, compensation by the convicted and more.

Kentucky statutes already promise these rights to victims as of 2016, but the current law doesn’t give any legal authority to enforce them. Republican Senator Whitney Westerfield said the new bill, seeking ratification by voters as a constitutional amendment, changes that.

“We are trying to protect the rights of victims — create the rights of victims, and protect their roles in the process,” Westerfield said. “Victims should be entitled to have these basic, fundamental protections. None of these contradict or diminish the important rights of the accused — any of the rights of the accused.”

Westerfield said the bill has bipartisan support. Of the 23 senators currently listed as co-sponsors, six are Democrats.

Marsy’s Law has also been publicly supported by groups such as the right-leaning Pegasus Institute. Pegasus recently released a Louisville study advocating for the law, citing a growing number of murders and firearm injuries in the city.

‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’

But other groups oppose enshrining the law in the constitution, saying the attention to victims’ rights comes at a cost to people accused of crimes.

Similar constitutional amendments have been approved in California, Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Ohio. But in Montana, the state Supreme Court voided the law last November.

Montana’s American Civil Liberties Union opposed the law when it was proposed as an amendment to their constitution in 2016. Montana ACLU legal director Alex Rate said the law creates problems for the judicial system because it grants constitutional protections to one party before court proceedings finish.

That, Rate said, suggests one party is a victim and the accused is guilty before due process.

“It flips this idea of due process and ‘innocent until proven guilty’ on its head,” Rate said. “What [people] don’t understand when they’re voting on these types of things is that they’re limiting the rights of everybody else.”

In Kentucky, the state ACLU doesn’t support the measure either. Kentucky ACLU Attorney Heather Gatnarek said the law would confuse and burden Kentucky’s justice system, and lacks the finances to support alleged victims.

“Survivors and victims of crime, it’s true, are often not treated with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled … however, expanding services for those individuals takes a real investment. That is not what Marsy’s Law does,” Gatnarek said.

The bill is also opposed by the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which claims it would reduce the rights of the accused. The group is asking its members to speak out against the measure.

Lead bill sponsor Sen. Whitney Westerfield said he doesn’t believe those concerns are valid, and he promised equal rights would be afforded to both people accused of crimes and their alleged victims.

Marsy’s Law passed out of the state Senate in the 2016 legislative session but didn’t get momentum in the House.

This year’s version of the bill was sent to the State and Local Government Committee, chaired by Republican Senator Joe Bowen Wednesday. Westerfield expects the bill will be heard by the committee next week. Like any constitutional amendment, it would need a supermajority of votes to pass out of each legislative chamber.

If it passes, it would need a majority of votes from the public during November’s general election to be added to the state constitution.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.