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Marsy's Law aims to help provide crime victims rights

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Kentucky voters will get to cast ballot on new law this fall

By Zac Oakes

 

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Voters headed to the polls in November will have a slate of candidates for local offices to vote for, but they will also have a “Yes” or “No” question on the ballot as well. 

The question will read, “Are you in favor of providing constitutional rights to victims of crime, including the right to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and the right to be informed and to have a voice in the judicial process?”

The ballot measure is called “Marsy’s Law,” and while the Kentucky General Assembly already approved it in January, it is an amendment to the Kentucky Constitution and therefore, must be approved by Kentucky voters. 

The bill had bipartisan support in the Kentucky Legislature and passed in the first few days of the session, passing through the Senate as Senate Bill 3 by a 34-1 margin and then easily passing through the House by an 87-3 margin. State Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, co-sponsored the bill and voted in favor of it. Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, also voted in favor of the bill. 

But first, the bill will have to jump through a legal hurdle, according to bill co-sponsor Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, who spoke to the CKNJ about Marsy’s Law last week. 

“This bill carries the largest coalition of the most diverse group of supporters of any bill I have handled in the legislature,” Westerfield said. “… this has nothing to do with party. It has a broad base of support from the left, right, and the middle.”  

Now, it will be up to Kentucky voters to decide whether the “Victim’s Bill of Rights,” as it has been often labeled, will become part of the Kentucky Constitution. 

The Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed suit against the bill, claiming the ballot question is vague and doesn't fully explain how the law would affect the criminal justice system and other parts of the constitution.

Westerfield said he believes the ballot question accurately represents the bill in question and it would be completely impractical to present the entire bill on the ballot. The bill in its entirety totals about 700 words.

“Their arguments, I think, are completely devoid of merit,” Westerfield said.  

Westerfield said Marsy’s Law is important for Kentucky because Kentucky is one of just 16 states that does not have a constitutionally protected set of rights for crime victims. They have been able to look at other states, particularly Arizona, to decide what works best for a law such as this, Westerfield said. 

Among those rights included in Marsy’s Law is the right of notice, which includes victims being notified of court proceedings, release on bail, transfer, etc. It also aims to help free victims from harassment and allows them to be heard in court proceedings. Also listed in the bill is “reasonable protection from the accused and those acting on behalf of the accused.” 

The big thing, Westerfield said, is the creation of standing for those victims, to be able to enforce those rights. 

“Marsy’s Law would create standing for the limited purpose of enforcing those rights that we create,” Westerfield said. “If you are not given or provided, or your right is not honored in some way, you’ve got a legal mechanism to enforce those rights.”

Westerfield said there are some statutory laws on the books in Kentucky for crime victims, but it only applies to victims of “a dozen or so” crimes. 

“We have more than 400 crimes on the books in Kentucky,” he added. “So unless you fall under one of these crimes in the old statutes, you don’t have any rights, and that is unacceptable.” 

If passed by Kentucky voters, Marsy’s Law will go into effect immediately, according to Westerfield, and he thinks it ultimately will pass. 

“I feel optimistic based on the research I’ve done so far and discussed with other attorneys on our side of the case,” Westerfield said. “I feel good about our position in litigation, I believe it will be on the ballot, and I believe it will have a strong showing from one end of the state to the other.” 

For more information on Marsy’s Law, visit victimsrightsky.com. To view the bill in its entirety, visit http://www.lrc.ky.gov/recorddocuments/bill/18RS/SB3/SCS1.pdf. 

Westerfield is also running for Kentucky Attorney General in 2019, which will be an open race as current Attorney General Andy Beshear is running for Governor. 

Westerfield said that his top three priorities in the race, and potentially as the Attorney General, include adding resources to fight against the opioid epidemic in the state, increasing resources for the Cyber Crimes Unit in the Attorney’s General Office, and victim advocacy. 

He said he wants to work with law enforcement to toughen punishments on drug dealers while also assisting in providing more options for treatment for those in recovery, and cited the 2015 Heroin Bill as a piece of legislation he is proud of. As for cyber crimes, Westerfield noted a need to do more with data breaches and scams that target both the young and elderly, from financial scams to human trafficking. He also said he would like to add more victims advocates to county attorney offices across the state. 

After losing a narrow race in 2015 to Beshear, in which the margin of difference was less than 2,200 votes, Westerfield said he feels more prepared now than ever to take over as Kentucky’s AG. 

“I feel I am even more qualified than I thought I was three years ago,” Westerfield said. 

Westerfield said that if he were elected Attorney General, he would serve a four-year term and then seek re-election, as opposed to using the office as a launching pad for a higher office.