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Subcommittee Discusses Victims’ Rights Constitutional Amendment

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution held a July 17 hearing to discuss a resolution (S. J. Res. 35) that would create a constitutional amendment guaranteeing certain procedural rights to victims of violent crimes.

Sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the proposed amendment would guarantee a victim of a violent crime the right to:

  • be notified of all public proceedings involving the crime;
  • be notified of the release or escape of the convicted offender;
  • not be excluded from any public proceeding involving the crime;
  • be heard at public proceedings involving the release, sentencing, or pardon of the convicted offender;
  • have his/her safety and interest in avoiding unreasonable delays considered in judicial decisions; and
  • receive restitution from a convicted offender.

Opponents argue that a constitutional amendment is not necessary and that what is needed is enforcement of existing state and federal laws. “Statutes are a better, more flexible, and faster response than amending the Constitution,” stated Subcommittee Chair Russ Feingold (D-WI), opening the hearing. “Congress should proceed very carefully when it comes to amending the Constitution,” he cautioned.

Proponents, however, contend that a constitutional amendment is necessary to balance victims’ rights with the rights of defendants and to create uniformity among states. “While criminal defendants have almost two dozen separate constitutional rights, … there is not one word in the Constitution about crime victims,” stated Sen. Feinstein. Citing strong bipartisan support she said, “Both the Democratic and Republican Party Platforms call for a victims’ rights amendment, governors in 40 of 50 states have called for an amendment, and four former U.S. Attorneys General, including Attorney General Reno, support an amendment.”

“Of all the constitutional amendments that I have considered since I became a Senator, this one is perhaps the least troubling because the goal is so laudable,” responded Sen. Feingold, explaining that he supported amending the Wisconsin state constitution to include protections for victims. “But the Wisconsin state constitution …appropriately clarifies that the rights granted to victims cannot reduce the rights of the accused in a criminal proceeding,” he said, and added, “Unfortunately, the amendment before us today does not contain a similar provision.”

“We all have our hearts in the right place,” said Sen. Kyl. “But until victims’ rights are elevated to a constitutional amendment, they will not get the protection they need,” he argued, and added that the amendment was carefully crafted to fully protect a defendant’s rights.

Some opponents assert that a constitutional amendment could put victims of domestic violence at risk. Julie Goldsheid of Safe Horizons testified that “batterers frequently make false claims of criminal conduct, which often result in arrest of the true victim.” She explained, “Under the proposed amendment, a batterer whose false accusations result in prosecution could be accorded ‘victim’ status and could benefit from all the proposed constitutional rights.”

Ms. Goldsheid also pointed out that “the same concern applies to cases in which domestic violence victims strike back at their batterers in self-defense….” She added, “The proposed amendment would at best be symbolic, and at worst harmful to some of the most vulnerable victims.”

Roberta Roper of the National Victims’ Constitutional Amendment Network (NVCAN) disagreed. “The language of this amendment has been carefully crafted to preserve the protections of accused or convicted offenders, while enabling victims and survivors of criminal violence to have minimal rights not to be excluded from criminal proceedings,…” she said. “There are those who say we should focus on strengthening existing laws,” she stated, and added, “More than two decades of efforts in securing state and federal laws are evidence of the failure to provide victims with sufficiently protected rights.”

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