Can the victims’ rights amendment deliver what it promises?

What is the Marsy’s Law crime victims constitutional amendment?

A North Carolina constitutional amendment in the 2018 election would give crime victims more rights. Will “Marsy’s Law” make sure victims’ rights are enforced, or create a financial burden on the court system?
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A North Carolina constitutional amendment in the 2018 election would give crime victims more rights. Will “Marsy’s Law” make sure victims’ rights are enforced, or create a financial burden on the court system?

When it comes to passing legislation, there are workhorses and there are show horses — lawmakers who work hard to get it right and those more concerned with looking good.

The same could be said of the legislation associated with each type of lawmaker. The victims’ rights amendment on the ballot is a show-horse measure that sounds good but would struggle to deliver on its promise.

The state constitution already requires victims to be notified about all proceedings in their case and the opportunity to be heard in court, as The Insider’s Colin Campbell reported. It requires notifications when an offender is released from prison. Those requirements apply in cases involving domestic violence and major felonies.

The proposed amendment, known as Marsy’s Law, would expand the requirements to violent misdemeanors, felony property crimes and some juvenile cases. Victims would have more chances to speak in court and they’d have the right to attend all court proceedings. The amendment would guarantee that victims awarded restitution receive it “in a timely manner.”

Former Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby, a lobbyist for the amendment, said it would allow victims to petition a judge for enforcement of their rights.

That’s all good. But there’s a problem with the proposed amendment — a big problem. The legislature hasn’t allocated any money to pay for what the amendment promises. It’s what is sometimes called an unfunded mandate. Our already underfunded and often overwhelmed court system would have to figure out how to pay for the people to track offenders and notify victims. That could lead to additional delays in an already painfully slow legal system.

The legislature’s staff estimates that the amendment could cost at least $11 million a year to fund 150 victim services coordinator positions, and there could be other costs. That’s a small amount in a $24 billion state budget but a big expense for the court system to absorb. 

Perhaps the costs could be lowered if the state invested in technology to notify victims by email or text message. But that’s wishful thinking. The state has no plan on how to put the amendment’s requirements in place.

That’s because the amendment, and five other proposed constitutional amendments, were rushed through at the end of the legislative session in late June by legislators more concerned with their own political fortunes than with helping crime victims. (Marsy’s Law  passed the House in 2017 and was changed behind the scenes before emerging in the Senate at the end of this year’s session.)

As a group, the amendments are sloppy and poorly drafted. The amendment to lower the cap on the state income taxes falsely implies that it would lower the income tax rate. The amendment to create a new Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement instead calls for a “Bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections Enforcement.” The amendment to require a photo ID for voters doesn’t even say which photo IDs would be acceptable and which wouldn’t.

Amending the state constitution should be a deliberate process. In the last 20 years, the legislature has taken seven constitutional amendments to voters. This year legislative leaders rushed through two decades’ worth of proposed amendments at the end of a short session.

Voters should reject the victims’ rights amendment. The next legislature should do the hard work of figuring out how to put in place the requirements in the amendment and then provide the funding to do so. If they’re serious about victims’ rights, legislators should stop preening and strutting, get to work and provide money to inform and notify crime victims.