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House Committee Hears Testimony on Victims’ Rights Amendment

On September 30, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on a proposed constitutional amendment (H.J. Res. 48) that would guarantee certain procedural rights to victims of violent crimes. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved an identical resolution (S.J. Res. 1) on September 4 (see The Source, 9/5/03).

Sponsored by Chair Steve Chabot (R-OH), H.J. Res. 48 would give victims of crime (or those speaking on behalf of victims of crime) the right to be heard at sentencing, parole hearings, and other criminal proceedings. The measure also would require victims’ safety to be factored into release hearings for violent criminals.

In his opening statement, Rep. Chabot said that the amendment is necessary because “the U.S. Constitution is completely silent on victims’ rights, while it speaks volumes about the rights of the accused…The U.S. Constitution essentially serves as a trump card for those accused of committing crimes in order to keep victims from participating in their prosecution, or even just sitting in the courtroom during trial.”

Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) disagreed and stated, “Constitutional Amendments may make for great headlines, but I do not believe this is the answer.” He went on to add that the proposed amendment “will do more to obstruct the wheels of justice than to provide victims with the assistance they need to put their lives back together.”

Steven Twist of the National Victims Constitutional Amendment Project noted that child molestation, sexual offenses against vulnerable persons, and forcible sex offenses against adults would be treated as “crimes of violence” under the amendment. “For women and children who are the victims of domestic violence, the right to have safety considered as a factor before any release decision is made, or before any sentence is imposed, is a right of life and death importance,” he argued.

The committee also heard testimony from Sharon Nolan, whose daughter was five months pregnant when she was killed. Her daughter’s husband was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years-to-life in prison, but one year later his attorney appealed the sentencing. Mrs. Nolan read aloud the statement she was not allowed to read at the appeal and lamented, “Although we were allowed to address the court during his sentencing, we were now being told that there was nothing for us to say.”

A professor at the New York University School of Law, James Orenstein, opposed the proposed amendment, citing adverse consequences to law enforcement in organized crime and prison cases. He spoke favorably of the Crime Victims Assistance Act of 2003 (S. 22) and similar legislation because “the substantive benefits to be achieved by [H.J. Res. 48] in particular, the creation of a national standard of crime victims’ rights that courts, prosecutors and police would be legally bound to respect can and should be achieved through federal legislation.”

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