Professors, Murder Victims' Families Express Concerns About Unintended Consequences
Washington, DC (September 5, 1996) -- A victim's rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution is an unnecessary infringement on the states' powers and would prove too costly and cumbersome to implement, according to a letter released today by 160 prominent law professors and legal scholars from across the country. The letter notes that almost all states already have statutes or constitutional provisions protecting victims' rights to restitution or to participate in sentencing proceedings, and that a constitutional amendment could actually make criminal proceedings more complex and time consuming and would lead to "more, not less, uncertainty in the criminal justice process."
Joining the debate, a group of families of murder victims has released a statement opposing the proposed amendment, different versions of which are pending before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) expresses concerns that the amendment would cause problems and additional delays for crime victims and their survivors. The organization notes that the proposals are based on "a flawed understanding of the needs of crime victims and their survivors." For example, regarding the draft proposals to create a victim right "to final disposition free from unreasonable delay," the victims group statement says "Victims are not served by sloppy, unconstitutional, or wrongful prosecutions."
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) has volunteered to help distribute both important documents.
Delays, Costs Could Be Enormous
The professors' letter, dated September 4, is addressed to the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, which have jurisdiction over the issue (Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the ranking minority members of the same committees (Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del).
"Although we commend the desire to help crime victims, we also believe amending the Constitution to do so is both dangerous and unnecessary," the professors' letter said.
Commenting on the letter, Leslie Hagin, NACDL legislative director and counsel said, "This remarkable letter from an impressive array of law professors from across the country teaches what anyone who ever finished their first year of law school, let alone the chairmen of the Judiciary Committees, should know -- that this [amendment] would blow the Bill of Rights out of the water and sink the courts in the process."
The letter states, "The direct and indirect costs of an amendment could be enormous. [All versions] of the amendment [now under consideration] create vast uncertainties and conflicts that legislatures and courts would have to address, resulting in more, not less, uncertainty in the criminal justice process. The courts, already overburdened with criminal cases, would need additional judges and personnel. Crime victims who cannot afford attorneys certainly would argue that they have a right to court-appointed counsel to assist them in exercising their rights, just as defendants do now. If crime victims have a right to be heard in any proceeding affecting 'custody,' even routine hearings could become complex and time consuming. Conflicts between defendants' rights and victims' rights -- the right to a 'speedy trial' or 'final resolution free from unreasonable delay,' for example -- would increase litigation and appeals."
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Problems could also arise under the leading proposals which would give victims the right to object to plea bargains, the letter said. Victims could effectively force cases to trial even if the prosecutor believes that the evidence will not support the original charges, and some victims might insist on plea bargains that could be too lenient.
But as the August 30 murder victims' families statement statement says, "What about cases where victims of the same convicted offender disagree. . . ?"
Who Is a 'Victim'?
Both the professor letter and the MVFR statement emphasize that no proposed version of the amendment provides clear guidelines for identifying who is properly a "victim" for entitlement purposes, and what remedies, if any, victims would have if their new rights are violated. While some versions would allow victims to bring civil rights suits for damages if deprived of their new constitutional rights, the latest draft proposals seek to prohibit victims from suing, arguably leaving them without a remedy if their rights are violated -- in other words, empty promises.
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"Would a battered woman convicted of assaulting her batterer be required to provide financial compensation to the batterer?" the families group asked. "Would the surviving family members of a murder victims be considered victims? If so, which family victims? What about cases where a crime is alleged but never proven to have happened?"
The MVFR statement strongly concludes, "The purpose of a criminal proceeding is to determine whether the defendant is guilty of the offense she or he is charged with, and not advocacy for victims.
"Support for victims and their survivors should not be equated with convictions or long sentences. Victims' services should be independent of law enforcement, and serve the needs of victims rather than those or law enforcement or political campaigns."
Copies of the documents and signers are available from NACDL.
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