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Illinois Voters To Consider Constitutional Amendment On Crime Victims' Rights

Flickr | alancleaver_2000

Illinois voters will consider this November whether to amend the state constitution over rights for crime victims.

Victims already have certain rights, including: to be told about court dates, to attend trials and to give impact statements.

But some advocates believe a constitutional amendment is needed to better protect these rights.

"You have victims' rights, but if they are violated, there's no way to fix it. There's no remedy, and there's no right of the victim to talk to the court directly to ask for their rights to be protected," said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, director of victims advocacy group Marsy's Law for Illinois.

Marsy's Law for Illinois is based on a California amendment passed in 2008. Bishop-Jenkins said the Illinois version would create language in the state constitution that would enforce crime victims' rights and give victims legal recourse to make the court aware of violations.
"Right now, victims have no actual official standing or legal relationship to their own cases," Bishop-Jenkins said.

Having that protection is important for crime victims, as well as their families, she said. Bishop-Jenkins' sister was murdered along with her family in Chicago years ago. Bishop-Jenkins said her family wasn't able to give a victim impact statement during sentencing because a mandatory sentence was in place and the courts felt it wasn't necessary. But Bishop-Jenkins says not only would it have helped her grieving family, but it also would have informed later courts hearing the defendant's case for a new sentence.

Bishop-Jenkins says a constitutional amendment also would deal with a clause in the state constitution that "prohibits victims from pursing legal remedy through an appeal," according to Marsy's Law press release. That basically means "if there are any problems with victims rights during course of a case, they can’t fix it during the appeals process," Bishop-Jenkins said, noting it's the only such clause in a state constitution in the country.

But not everyone thinks an amendment is needed. The Illinois State Bar Association says statutes could fix these issues better than a constitutional amendment.

"Efforts to amend the federal Constitution on behalf of crime victims in 2003 were rejected in favor of amending the Federal Victim’s Rights Act. As a matter of principle, we prefer that Illinois take the same statutory approach," the association said in a press release.

Stephen Baker, legislative counsel for the Cook County Public Defender's Office, said even if the amendment passes, it will still have to be further defined through statutes and court cases. 

"It’s much ado about symbolism in terms of the constitutional amendment," Baker said. "We want it because other states have it. It’s a feather in our cap. But the real work will be done when the enabling statute is debated and negotiated, which could occur without constitutional amendment."

Baker said crime victims have options if they feel their rights have been violated. If a judge has told them to "sit down and shut up" rather than allowing them to make a victim impact statement, Baker said a complaint can be made to the judicial inquiry board. Likewise, if a prosecutor is rude or has failed to let a victim know about a court date, that attorney may be reported to the licensing board.

Plus, he said, the language of the proposed amendment "vague" and could conflict with the federal due process clause.

"If you enact a statute that turns out to have some unanticipated problems, it's not that hard to correct it," Baker said. "If, on the other hand, there's language in the constitutional amendment that's problematic, you're never going to change that. It's written in stone."

The issue will be on the November ballot.

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