During next year’s legislative session, lawmakers will consider adding a “crime victims’ bill of rights” to Kentucky’s constitution.
The measure would create several constitutional guarantees, including a requirement that courts notify victims or their families when an offender is released from custody.
Advocates have pushed for “Marsy’s Law” in recent legislative sessions but the efforts have failed amid concerns that the measure would add costs and give victims an upper hand against those accused of crimes in court proceedings.
“For a person victimized that has no one but their prosecutor, these rights that we’re asking for in Marsy’s Law could help someone stay a part of the process and have better hopes for a fair trial,” said Michelle Kuiper, a sexual assault survivor and Marsy’s Law advocate.
Marsy’s Law would give victims the right to be present and be heard at court proceedings. Courts would be required to notify victims about proceedings and if the defendant is released or escapes. Victims would have the right to restitution from those convicted of committing a crime against them.
And victims would have the right to “seek enforcement of the rights” and the court would be required to “afford a remedy for the violation of any right.”
The law is named after Marsy Nicholas, a Californian who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Her family pushed for the measure after running into the accused in a grocery store —he had been released on bail.
Pam Darnell, president of Family and Children’s Place, said the measure would protect victims and their families at their most vulnerable.
“By ensuring that victims have constitutional protections and that their rights to notification, to be present and to be heard are protected, that’s how we can move victims away from the pain and suffering that happen as a result of their hurt,” Darnell said.
Four states have passed measures like Marsy’s Law, the first being California in 2008. Several other states are considering the proposal, including Ohio, which will have a constitutional referendum on Marcy’s Law this November.
Last year in South Dakota, defense lawyers and prosecutors said that their state’s version of the law created delays in the court systems because hearings had to be rescheduled until victims were notified.
Kate Miller, advocacy director for the ACLU of Kentucky, said her organization opposes the law because it would overburden the criminal justice system and give victims more of a role in the prosecution.
“This introduces another opportunity for inequitable treatment within the justice system,” Miller said in a statement. “An individual who is a victim or survivor of a crime who is financially well off or has access to more resources will likely yield more influence than those victims or survivors who are poor, especially vulnerable or have been criminal defendants themselves.”
‘Put the focus on victims’
Marsy’s Law passed out of the state Senate in the 2016 legislative session but didn’t get momentum in the House.
The constitutional amendment would need a supermajority of votes to pass out of each legislative chamber. Then the measure would be have to receive a majority of votes from the public during a general election.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, threw his support behind the bill during a legislative hearing last week. He said the legislature needs to shift its focus from criminal justice reforms passed in recent years that affect those accused and convicted of committing crimes.
“I think it’s time for us to change our focus for this session, to be on the victims of those crimes. I’m not trying to denigrate our efforts, again I voted for those things and they make sense,” Thayer said.
“I get it, ‘smart on crime.’ But we need to put the focus on the victims.”
Lawmakers can only take up four constitutional amendments during the General Assembly.
Rep. Bam Carney, a Republican from Campellsville, said “If we only do one amendment, I’m for this this one. I think this is something Kentucky needs desperately.”