HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania voters will be in asked in November to vote on whether to amend the Constitution to better protect the rights of crime victims.

Critics, including those at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Pennsylvania already has strong protections for victims written into state law through the Crime Victims Act. It’s unclear how adding the language to the Constitution will make it more likely that the government will do a better job doing things it’s already supposed to do, said Liz Randol, legislative director for the ACLU in Pennsylvania.

House Bill 276, known as Marsy’s Law, creates a Victims Bill of Rights. The legislation will be on the ballot after passing both chambers of the General Assembly with overwhelming support in 2018 and again this year. The Senate voted unanimously in June to put the question before the voters in November.

A public notice about the ballot question appeared in newspapers across the state on Thursday.

The proposal has been backed by the state’s victim advocate Jennifer Storm and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

The impetus for the legislation was the case of Marsalee Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983 in California.

A week after Marsy was murdered, her brother Dr. Henry T. Nicholas and Marsy’s mother, Mrs. Marcella Leach, walked into a grocery store after visiting her daughter’s grave and were confronted by the accused murderer, said Jennifer Riley, state director of the Marsy’s Law campaign. The family had no idea that he had been released on bail, she said.

Dr. Nicholas has led the push to get the Victims Bill of Rights measures named after his sister in states across the country. There are versions of Marsy’s Law now in place in 11 states -- California, Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina.

Riley said that victims are “fortunate” that Pennsylvania does have a crime victims act, originally passed in the 1990s. But the existing law doesn’t provide any way for victims to get courts to intervene on their behalf if they feel like that law hasn’t been followed.

Advocates for the Victims Bill of Rights argue that elevating the protections so that they are in the state Constitution will make it less likely that victims’ interests will be overlooked, she said.

Randol at the ACLU said that the civil liberties group doesn’t oppose some of the measures in the Bill of Rights, because they do mirror existing law.

Broadly, the group questions whether it should be legal to characterize a victim as a victim from the moment a crime is reported, since that would appear to undermine long-established legal principles about presumption of innocence, she said.

There are other changes that they find worrisome, including provisions mandating that victims can refuse to testify and increased requirements for notifying victims about court proceedings.

Riley said the ACLU’s concerns are “hypothetical.”

Randol said that the mandate for increased notification of victims can lead to delays in court if the victim is difficult to locate.

Problems with the notification requirement compelled South Dakota to revisit the Marsy’s Law – which first passed in that state in 2016. Last year, South Dakota voters headed to the polls a second time to consider whether victims should be asked whether they wanted to be notified of court proceedings to reduce the amount of time needed by court employees to satisfy that responsibility.

CNHI PA State Reporter

CNHI State Reporter John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com.

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