On November 5, you will have the opportunity to vote in municipal elections across Pennsylvania. In addition to making your choices for important positions like school board, county commission, court of common pleas and superior court, you will also be asked to answer a question about whether Pennsylvania should change its constitution to incorporate specific protections for victims of crime. This is known as “Marsy’s Law.”
Twelve states have already passed a ballot measure for Marsy’s Law, starting with California in 2008. The law is named after Marsalee (Marsy) Nicholas, a young woman who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. One week after her death, her killer confronted her family in a grocery store after they visited her grave. They had no idea that he had been released on bail. Based on this experience, her brother, Dr. Henry T. Nicholas, has spearheaded campaigns across the country to enshrine victims’ rights in state law.
The measure got on the ballot because it passed both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly in two consecutive sessions. It has broad bipartisan support, as well as backing from Governor Wolf. On November 5, you will be asked to vote yes or no on the following question:
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to grant certain rights to crime victims, including to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity; considering their safety in bail proceedings; timely notice and opportunity to take part in public proceedings; reasonable protection from the accused; right to refuse discovery requests made by the accused; restitution and return of property; proceedings free from delay; and to be informed of these rights, so they can enforce them?
If the ballot measure is approved, it will give crime victims certain rights, including the right to:
be treated with fairness and respect for the victim's safety, dignity, and privacy;
proceedings free from unreasonable delay and a prompt and final conclusion of the case;
have the safety of the victim and victim's family considered when setting the bail amount and release conditions for the accused;
reasonable and timely notice of public proceedings involving the criminal conduct;
be present at public proceedings involving the criminal conduct;
be heard at proceedings where a right of the victim is implicated, including release, sentencing, and parole proceedings;
receive notice of any pretrial disposition of the case, with the exception of grand jury proceedings;
provide information to be considered before the parole of the offender;
reasonable protection from the accused and those acting on the behalf of the accused;
reasonable notice of the release or escape of the accused;
refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the accused;
full and timely restitution from the person or entity convicted;
the prompt return of property when no longer needed as evidence;
and confer with the government's attorney.
Under this law, a crime victim is defined as a person against whom a criminal offense or delinquent act was committed and who was directly harmed by the offense or act. This means that crime victims are more broadly defined, so that family members would also be eligible for protection, such as in murder cases. Marsy’s Law would add a section to Pennsylvania’s constitution (Section 9.1, available here).
Although Pennsylvania currently has a law — the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act (CVA) — that gives victims rights, it is less comprehensive than what is offered by Marsy’s Law. For example, it only requires notice of “certain significant actions and proceedings,” instead of “reasonable and timely notice of public proceedings” as in Marsy’s Law. Many of the protections of the CVA are limited to victims who have suffered a “personal injury” crime, which is limited to offenses such as assault, homicide, arson, sexual assault, and robbery.
Marsy’s Law goes far beyond the CVA to protect victims, such as requiring the courts to consider the safety of victims and their families when setting bail and conditions of release. Most importantly, because the CVA does not have any enforcement mechanism, Marsy’s Law is an important way for crime victims to actually enforce their rights. For example, if a crime victim was not given an opportunity to be heard before a perpetrator was sentenced, they could demand a new sentencing hearing. Attorneys used this type of law (the federal Crime Victims’ Right Act) to challenge the sweetheart deal Jeffrey Epstein negotiated in his Florida sex trafficking case, as his victims were never notified of the agreement before it was approved.
In Pennsylvania, the rights of victims are often ignored. Criminal charges are dismissed, alleged perpetrators are released, or lenient deals are made — all without regard for the safety and well-being of the victims and their families. Marsy’s Law would give victims a say in the process and to protect themselves and their families.
When deciding how to vote on this ballot measure, it is important to understand what Marsy’s Law does and do not do. Marsy’s Law does not:
Take away a defendant’s constitutional rights;
Change the rules of discovery (where the prosecutor turns over certain evidence to the defense); or
Elevate the rights of the victim over the rights of the accused.