Constitutional Amendment on the ballot this spring

On April 7, Wisconsin voters will have the opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment to protect and expand the rights of crime victims within the criminal justice system. This crime victim rights amendment is known in many places around the country as “Marsy’s Law” after a young woman who was stalked and killed by her boyfriend in 1983. Just days after her death, her family ran into her accused murderer at the grocery store. They did not know he had been released on bail. While the United States Constitution guarantees the rights of criminals, it is silent on the rights of crime victims and their families.

Wisconsin has a strong history of protecting victims’ rights. The state enacted one of the first crime victim bill of rights in 1980. The Wisconsin Legislature approved the joint resolutions to put this crime victim rights constitutional amendment before voters with wide bipartisan support. Currently, the Wisconsin Constitution says that the state shall treat crime victims “with fairness, dignity and respect for their privacy.” The constitution also requires the state to ensure that crime victims have certain privileges and protections in a criminal case.

The proposed amendment would make several changes to the Wisconsin Constitution, some of which already exist in state statute and some of which would be new or expanded rights. Under the proposed amendment, victims would gain the right to privacy, to be treated with dignity and respect, to be heard in court, and have the right to refuse to take part in discovery and interview requests. The proposed amendment also states that these rights do not supersede a defendant’s rights in the courtroom. This is a critical component of the proposal. The goal is to balance the rights of victims and defendants.

Law enforcement associations around the state testified in support of this proposed constitutional amendment. They argued that the Marsy’s Law amendment would reassure victims that their rights would be protected in the criminal justice system and empower them to come forward. They also argued that the amendment would protect the victim’s rights for a speedy trial, explaining that defendants are able to delay trials causing additional pain and anxiety for victims. Finally, they testified that elevating the rights of victims found in state law to constitutional rights would help restore victims’ trust in the judicial system.

Public Defenders raised concerns over the provision that allows a victim to refuse to take part in a deposition or discovery because it could deny a defendant the constitutional right to mount a defense. Others expressed concerns about unintended consequences such as increasing costs for local governments and having the provisions challenged in court. Another concern that was raised is that enshrining these rights in the constitution does not necessarily mean that there will be more victim advocates available to help victims assert their rights.

 

Marcy’s Law amendments have been approved in ten states and has widespread support from law enforcement agencies around the state. On April 7, voters will be asked to join these states by voting on the following question: “Shall section 9m of article I of the constitution, which gives certain rights to crime victims, be amended to give crime victims additional rights, to require that the rights of crime victims be protected with equal force to the protections afforded the accused while leaving the federal constitutional rights of the accused intact, and to allow crime victims to enforce their rights in court?”