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Voters get their say on 'Marsy's Law' for crime victims; Here's what it means, how it could impact Lancaster County

Lancaster Courthouse

The Lancaster County Courthouse is shown in this file photo.

Pennsylvania voters will decide in November whether to constitutionalize the rights of crime victims.

That’s because senators unanimously approved House Bill 276 — known as Marsy’s Law — on Wednesday, putting the matter to a referendum in the fall general election.

“For decades, we have had really good victims’ rights. The problem is we are not able to enforce them,” according to Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania’s victim advocate.

Marsy's Law would change that by elevating those rights to constitutional protections.

But opponents question whether a constitutional amendment is necessary. They point out that victims already have the power of the Commonwealth on their side.

Here’s what Marsy’s Law says and how would it impact Lancaster County.

Why is it called Marsy’s Law?

Marsalee (Marsy) Nicholas was murdered in California in 1983. Her brother and mother encountered her accused killer in a grocery store a few days after he had been arrested. They did not know he had been released on bail.

After that, they began a campaign to make sure that victims would be better informed so encounters like theirs wouldn't happen elsewhere, said Jennifer Riley, director of Marsy’s Law in Pennsylvania, which advocated for the referendum.

Six states approved versions of Marsy’s Law last year. Pennsylvania is one of nine states that do not include constitutional rights for victims, Riley said.

Don't victims have rights already?

Victims do have rights under statute, but they can’t petition a court to ensure those rights are protected, according to Storm.

“There’s no recourse, there’s no mechanism, there’s no legal standing in court,” Storm said.

Marsy’s Law would give victims a number of constitutional rights. Under the law, victims would be considered when courts set bail and conditions for release.

It would also give them the right to be notified of pretrial dispositions and when accused perpetrators are released from custody. The law would also require the prompt return of property no longer needed as evidence.

Currently, for example, a sentencing in a criminal case continues even if the court failed to notify the victim of the proceeding.

“If the victim isn’t there, then they lose the ability for restitution and a victim impact statement,” Storm said.

Making the rights part of the constitution would give victims the opportunity to object if they felt their rights were violated.

That could be done by filing a motion to the court explaining the violation, Storm said. In the example of a sentencing, the hearing could be held again.

“It won’t change sentencing or the outcome, but it will provide an opportunity for the victim to speak in court and be heard,” Riley said.

What would it mean in Lancaster County?

Under state statute, victims already have rights to be involved in and notified of the steps in the accused’s case.

“If everything’s going smoothly, and victims are included as they should be statutely,” there should not be an issue, Riley said.

The Lancaster County district attorney’s office has a victim and witness advocate team. A list of victim rights is on its website.

The team “makes every effort to be in close contact with victims” throughout the court process, District Attorney Craig Stedman wrote in an email Friday.

That includes making them aware of court dates and resolutions, giving them a chance to be present and heard, wrote Stedman, who has been a supporter of Marsy’s Law.

“To victims of crime, this legislation is monumental. It provides rights that align with those provided to defendants,” he said.

The detailed process for enforcing victims’ rights under Marsy’s Law would still need to be hashed out through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, according to Storm.

In places where Marsy’s Law has been implemented, judges are constitutionally required to explain victims’ rights during court proceedings.

If voters approve Marcy’s Law in the Nov. 5 referendum, Storm said her agency will hire an attorney to help county courts implement the changes.

Stedman said he does not foresee much change in his office’s workload and duties.

What do critics have to say?

Lancaster defense attorney Michael Winters said he’s not persuaded that the force of a constitutional amendment is needed to protect crime victims.

“The community, and those sworn to protect it, do not need to be convinced or reminded that protecting a crime victim from further harm is the right thing to do,” Winters said.

But Marsy’s Law will further chip away at an accused person’s presumption of innocence, said Lancaster defense attorney Christopher Sarno.

He pointed to the text of the amendment, which gives victims the right to have their safety considered when bail and conditions for release are set.

Sarno specifically mentioned a provision that requires the prompt return of a victim’s property, saying that could impede future appeals and a defendant’s chance for exoneration.

“To ask for these measures, one must believe that the person charged is always guilty, and the idea of being innocent until proven guilty is a delusion,” Sarno said in an email Friday.

Instead, Marsy’s Law conveys the principle that people are guilty until proven innocent, he said.

The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement in opposition Wednesday.

Executive director Reggie Shuford said the law would threaten protections for the accused and clog the criminal system with “constitutionally mandated requirements that victims are already entitled to by law.”

How will the question appear on the ballot?

Because Marsy’s Law bill has now passed both chambers of the Legislature in two consecutive sessions, it is now eligible for the November ballot as an amendment to the state Constitution.

But the proposal must first be reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office, according to The Associated Press.

The exact wording will be determined by the Department of State and publicized by early August, according to the state Constitution.

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