BOISE — A proposed constitutional amendment to address the rights of crime victims in Idaho is headed to the Senate floor.
Senate Joint Resolution 101, more commonly known as “Marsy’s Law,” passed through the Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday morning after two hours of impassioned and at times tearful testimony from supporters and critics of the proposal.
This is the third year the Legislature has considered amending the Idaho Constitution through Marsy’s Law, a campaign that originated in California to strengthen rights for crime victims. Similar amendments have been adopted by states including North Dakota and Illinois, but have thus far failed to clear the Idaho Legislature.
If passed by two-thirds of the Legislature and approved by voters, the resolution would amend the state’s 1994 Victim Rights Amendment by including the right to “reasonable and timely notification” of all open court proceedings, the right to be heard at certain open proceedings, require notification in cases when convicted offenders abscond or escape from probation or parole, and the right to “confer” — rather than simply “communicate” — with prosecutors. The resolution would also “provide standing” for victims to “assert their rights.”
The resolution is unlikely to significantly change practices in Twin Falls County, where most of the services included in Marsy’s Law are already provided, according to county officials.
Supporters of the resolution say it would set a higher constitutional baseline for victim’s rights in Idaho and make rights that already exist in statute and in the state’s constitution more enforceable. But some critics of Marsy’s Law say they would rather see the state devote resources to local victim support efforts and address some of the challenges victims face in taking advantage of the rights they already have.
“From a victim service perspective, it doesn’t change in any positive way anything that is actually happening for victims, in our view,” Donna Graybill, executive director of Voices Against Violence in Twin Falls, told the Times-News. “All it would do is possibly divert resources to system-based advocacy instead of keeping resources in community-based advocacy.
“I think the biggest challenge isn’t so much that they’re not being notified about court proceedings,” Graybill continued. “I think the biggest challenge is being engaged in those proceedings in a positive way that has their best interest in mind.”
The resolution has the support of the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Idaho Sheriff’s Association, Professional Firefighters of Idaho, Idaho State Association of County Coroners, and victim witness coordinators from around the state.
Twin Falls Prosecuting Attorney Grant Loebs told the Times-News he and other prosecutors had some concerns about versions of the resolution in previous years, but that those concerns were addressed in more recent versions.
“I think any time we do something that gives victims some extra resources and some extra access it’s a good thing,” Loebs said. “They tailored this so it doesn’t interfere with the needs of prosecuting people in a just and effective way.”
Opponents include the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, both of which expressed concerns about due process for defendants at the hearing Friday. Kathy Griesmeyer, policy director for the ACLU of Idaho, argued that the resolution could exacerbate some of the ongoing challenges within the Idaho criminal justice system, including excessive workloads for public defenders and crowding in the state’s jails and prisons.
Rather than implementing Marsy’s Law, Griesmeyer said, the ACLU would like to see the state implement of the recommendations included in a 2015 Boise State University study that assessed the needs of crime victims in Idaho. Those recommendations included helping victims access the services available by addressing barriers such as transportation and child care, increasing funding for victim services, and creating a state-level crime victim ombudsman.
The resolution’s sponsor, Sen. Todd Lakey of Nampa, said he didn’t see addressing these concerns and the implementation of Marsy’s Law as mutually exclusive.
“I think it’s important to remember that this is the floor,” Lakey said of the proposed amendment. “This is not the ceiling. We add to that, and we should add to that, by statute.”
If passed, the amendment likely wouldn’t change much about the way Twin Falls County treats victims, Loebs said, as many of the practices included in Marsy’s Law are already in place in Twin Falls and other large counties. Its impact is more likely to be felt in smaller counties that may not currently provide the same level of victim services.
Sen. Michelle Stennett of Ketchum expressed some concern about the funding of Marsy’s Law if passed, including the financial strain it could potentially place on those smaller counties. The estimated statewide cost of an earlier version of the proposal was roughly $550,000. Lakey said he believed the actual cost would be lower, however, as notification is optional for victims in the current version.
The resolution passed on an 8-1 vote, with the only vote against coming from Sen. Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens. Vick said he would prefer to see the state address victims’ rights through statute rather than in a constitutional amendment. The two Magic Valley legislators on the committee, Stennett and Sen. Kelly Anthon of Burley, voted in favor of sending the resolution to the Senate floor, although Stennett said she felt “a lot of trepidation” toward the resolution itself.
“This has always been a very difficult one for me, because I’m still on the fence,” Stennett said, noting that changing an amendment once it’s in place is significantly more difficult than making changes to statute. “The hurdle’s always been for me that when you put it in statute, you can make the changes, you can see if it’s improving, and if it’s not you can tweak it. It’s much harder to undo it out of the Constitution and amendment process.”
Stennett added that she would like to see the state properly fund and enforce the victims’ rights that are already in place.
“The underlying thing that always comes back to me is, are we enforcing and allowing for the things we’re already providing for in law or in statute?... And we’re not,” Stennett said. “If we add this extra step, I hope we have the courage to enforce all of it and not abandon the victims.”