Opinion

Victims deserve to be informed about their case. And to be heard.

Freida MacDonald appears in a video in support of Marsy’s Law on victims’ rights.
Freida MacDonald appears in a video in support of Marsy’s Law on victims’ rights.

As this year’s campaign season reaches its final weeks, there’s a lot of attention in North Carolina to the six constitutional amendments voters will consider on November 6. Unfortunately, not all of the information being presented to voters is accurate.

As the former district attorney of Wake County for decades, our team worked daily with crime victims and their families, representing victims of every sort of crime imaginable. I proudly consider myself a long-time advocate for crime victims and have worked on victims’ rights causes throughout my career. That is why I joined the team working to strengthen constitutional victims’ rights, known as Marsy’s Law for North Carolina.

It’s critical that North Carolina voters understand this amendment before they vote, and look beyond the partisan back-and-forth. To those who claim this law is not necessary, that current victims’ rights are enough and this law already exists, that is not the case. There are gaps in current law that leave victims and their families unprotected, and for many North Carolinians who have never been exposed to crime, it may not even be noticeable. But for those who have been suddenly pushed into the system, it’s a life-changing and constant struggle.

Current rights for crime victims are limited to statute — and without an enforcement provision — while rights for the defendants are already found in the state constitution. Basically, this means that some rights for victims are optional, dependent on jurisdiction and location.

Some jurisdictions keep victims informed every step of the process, and have judges who let them speak at sentencings or bail hearings, but other jurisdictions may not follow the same process. Today, victims’ rights in North Carolina could depend on something as random as the county where a crime occurred.

And while victims’ rights are often unpredictable, rights for defendants are already protected in the constitution — meaning their rights carry more weight and are guaranteed statewide. While court officials in every jurisdiction in the state strive to give victims the rights they deserve, it doesn’t always happen. Some victims lose opportunities to be informed about the proceedings involving their case, aren’t allowed to speak during important hearings or, in the worst cases, aren’t informed when the accused is released from custody.

To be secure, those victims’ rights protections must be incorporated in our North Carolina Constitution if they are to stand firm against the changing political winds over time. This amendment provides specific, uniform and enforceable rights — statewide — ensuring that victims and their families have guaranteed rights just as the accused and convicted do.

And the arguments that this will overwhelm the courts or cost the state too much money are not true. Additional costs, which nonpartisan legislative fiscal review found to be a fraction of the cost that is often cited by opponents, are based primarily on upgrades to notification technology. And while it’s true that court officials and staff work hard to properly run their court systems, and this law will require more notification, is that a reason to fail to give victims information related to their cases, or notification when the accused is let out of jail?

It’s important to take the time to understand this amendment — and how much it is needed to give victims the rights they deserve. They deserve to be informed about their case. They deserve to be heard at important hearings if they choose. They deserve to be notified when the accused is released from custody. And they deserve to be assured these rights will be provided to all victims of felonies and domestic violence.

I will be voting in favor of victims’ rights on November 6 and urge North Carolina’s voters to join me.

Colon Willoughby was the district attorney for Wake County from 1986 to 2014.
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