Few would argue that crime victims shouldn't have a say in the criminal justice system, but we aren't convinced that the Equal Rights for Crime Victims amendment to the Ohio Constitution, which appears on the November ballot as Issue 1, is the best way to provide them rights.
The amendment, also known as Marsy's Law, has a horrific origin.
In 1983, Marsalee Nicholas was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in California. A week later, her parents, returning from their daughter's grave, walked into a grocery store and were confronted by the accused killer. The family didn't know that the man, who was later convicted, had been released on bond.
Nicholas' brother launched a campaign to amend the California Constitution to better protect the rights of victims in the state and voters there approved the measure in 2008. The campaign has since gone national.
Among the provisions the amendment would impose are a requirement for the alleged victims of crime to receive notification of proceedings in the case of defendants, including whether the accused has been released from custody. Victims also would be consulted on plea deals and allowed to speak in court, including at sentencing hearings and before a defendant is released.
Those rights are already contained in an amendment to the Ohio Constitution that passed in 1994.
As Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will, who supports Issue 1, and Elyria defense attorney Kenneth Lieux, who has serious reservations, told us, victims are routinely consulted on the outcome of cases, including plea deals, and are supposed to be notified when a defendant is released from jail. Victims also routinely speak at sentencing hearings.
"It's important to have victims heard in the process," Will said.
We agree, but that is already common practice.
Aaron Marshall, a spokesman for the group backing Issue 1, and Cathy Harper Lee, executive director of the Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center, told us the problem is more one of uniformity across the state because how crime victims are treated varies widely by jurisdiction.
That is a matter for voters to take up with their individually elected county prosecutors and law directors. It is not something that needs to be enshrined in the state Constitution.
The amendment also would allow victims to have legal standing in court proceedings to, for instance, push for cases to move more speedily through the process.
The right to a speedy trial was included in the Bill of Rights to protect the accused, not to bring swift closure for victims, although that is an important secondary benefit.
In order for both sides to prepare properly for a fair trial, delays are sometimes a necessary evil. Lawyers and judges are far better suited to determine whether a particular case has dragged on too long than a victim.
Backers of the amendment also argue that victims need legal standing to challenge requests for information from defendants and their representatives that they believe is immaterial to the case. But critics contend that portion of the amendment could interfere with the right of a defendant to confront his or her accuser.
The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Ohio Public Defender Tim Young both oppose Issue 1 in part because of what they fear would be a requirement to provide lawyers to victims at an unknown cost. That's a concern supporters of Issue 1 argue is overblown.
Marsy's law has been enacted in other states, including South Dakota, where at least one police department used its promise of privacy to victims to withhold the name of a murder victim from the public and the press.
Marshall told us that isn't the intent of the privacy aspect of the proposed amendment and the actions of a "rogue" police chief in South Dakota don't mean the same will happen in Ohio.
That may be true, but it's worth noting because of the potential for abuse. The public has a right to know who the victims in a criminal case are.
The state already wields awesome power against criminal defendants, who are presumed innocent unless they are found guilty by a jury or judge.
With that much power at their disposal, prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system shouldn't need a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of victims. They should already be doing it.
Issue 1 is full of good intentions, but it's a solution in search of a widespread problem that doesn't exist in Ohio and may indeed create new headaches. If the laws already on the books aren't being followed, the answer isn't more laws - it's to enforce those that do exist.
Voters should reject Issue 1.