An amendment on the ballot in Illinois says it would protect crime victims’ rights. That sounds good, but – as with anything that comes from the politicians in Springfield – voters should review the proposal carefully to see if it really deserves their support.
The Illinois Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights Amendment would give crime victims some new rights, including:
- A right to be “free from harassment, intimidation and abuse throughout the criminal justice process”
- A “right to notice and a hearing before a court ruling to access to any of the victim’s records, information, or communications which are privileged or confidential by law”
- A “right to be heard at any post-arraignment court proceeding in which a right of a victim is at issue and any court proceeding involving a post-arraignment release, decision, plea, or sentencing”
- A “right to have the safety of the victim and the victim’s family considered in denying or fixing the amount of bail, determining whether to release the defendant, and setting conditions of release after arrest and conviction”
These rights do not allow a crime victim to sue the state for damages, and the state is not required to pay for an attorney to represent the crime victim.
That may all seem harmless; even beneficial. But the proposed amendment’s right to be “free from harassment, intimidation and abuse” raises some questions.
Of course, no one wants crime victims to be harassed, intimidated or abused. But what exactly would those words prohibit? Would it be harassment for a reporter to ask questions? Would it be harassment for a lawyer to seek information to defend his client, or to conduct a tough cross-examination? And why aren’t existing laws against harassing, intimidating and abusive behavior enough to protect everyone’s rights?
Voters may also want to consider whether these rights need to be part of the Illinois Constitution, even if they do seem desirable. If these rights are enacted through a constitutional amendment and any of the provisions later have unintended negative consequences, we will be stuck with those consequences for a long time. (Illinoisans know this all too well from a recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling on the Constitution’s Pension Clause.) If the General Assembly established these rights through an ordinary statute instead – there is no reason why it couldn’t do so – then it would be easier to fix any mistakes.
Amending the Constitution is a big deal. Voters should inform themselves and think carefully before going to the polls.