The criminal justice system in Florida has seen many changes since I first started coming to Tallahassee nearly 40 years ago. The focus is almost always on the criminal; giving the right punishment for the crime while protecting their constitutional rights. But there is another party that is always affected when a crime is committed — the victim. Unfortunately, Florida’s track record of protecting their constitutional rights is not as great.
Over the past several months, the Constitution Revision Commission has been considering Proposal 96, commonly known as Marsy’s Law for Florida. Marsy’s Law would enumerate the rights granted to a victim. Current language is vague and, in many jurisdictions, has not been enforced. In fact, Florida is one of only 15 states that do not provide specific protections for victims within their state constitutions.
Watching the CRC over the past year, I have witnessed some of the most heartbreaking testimonies from victims who have been abandoned by the criminal justice system. One man, whose wife was brutally murdered in their home, has not received a single notification of hearings set for the man accused of killing his wife. Another woman, a victim of sexual assault, had to face her rapist when he chose to act as his own defense attorney. He used that position to gain access to her personal information, calling her and members of her family to threaten them in attempt to get them to drop the charges.
Those are just two examples of a problem that exists across the state. Please don’t misunderstand, I don’t believe our state attorneys are actively looking for ways to make life hell for victims of crimes. These fine men and women do tremendous work and they should be commended. The real culprit is simply a lack of clarity and enforcement. That’s what Marsy’s Law for Florida aims to provide.
Marsy’s Law for Florida would provide victims concrete rights, rights equal to, not greater than the rights of the accused. Victims would have the right to be informed of bail and pre-trial hearings, as well as trial, sentencing and parole hearings. Victims would have the right to be present, at the discretion of a judge, in the courtroom as hearings and trials take place. Victims would have the right to be heard at these hearings, again at a judge’s discretion, to share the impact the crimes committed have had on their lives. It’s important to note these rights would be completely voluntary. A victim should be able to be involved at the level they are comfortable with.
That’s why, this week during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the Florida Smart Justice Alliance has endorsed the measure. We are for commonsense criminal justice reforms and this is about as commonsense as you can get.
While the full CRC has previously voted favorably on Marsy’s Law for Florida, it is the Alliance’s great hope that they do so again, so Florida voters will have the chance to decide if Marsy’s Law is a good thing for Floridians. Marsy’s Law for Florida will only serve to improve our criminal justice system and will give victims the voice they have been lacking for too long.
Barney Bishop III is the president and CEO of Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization that is law enforcement-centric, which supports common sense reform if it maintains public safety as Job No. 1.