DES MOINES — A push to add language to the Iowa Constitution that ensures the rights of crime victims is moving through the Legislature despite opposition from a crime victims group and prosecutors as well as problems in other states that have enacted similar laws.
The law, being supported in states around the country by a California billionaire, has bipartisan support and the backing of Gov. Kim Reynolds, but others argue the legislation could ultimately hurt victims by siphoning money away from other programs that now help them.
“If it was effective, we’d be all for it. I don’t care if it costs one million dollars, victims are worth it,” said Laura Hessburg, director of public policy for the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “But we don’t think it’s effective, and it’s going to take money away from all the people and systems who can help victims.”
The legislation, known as Marsy’s Law, would amend the constitution to guarantee crime victims and close relatives have the right to privacy, protection from harassment or abuse and notice of trial, sentencing and post-judgment proceedings.
Because it’s a constitutional amendment, lawmakers would need to approve the legislation now and in the 2019 or 2020 sessions. It then would go before voters.
The proposal is named after Marsalee Nicholas, a Southern California college student killed in 1983 by a former boyfriend, who was convicted of second-degree murder but later paroled. Her brother, billionaire Henry Nicholas, came to the conclusion the justice system wasn’t keeping victims or families apprised, prompting him to create an organization that sought state laws guaranteeing rights for victims.
Marsy’s Laws have been approved by voters in California, Ohio, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Montana’s Supreme Court recently invalidated the constitutional amendment, citing flaws in how it was written.
Rep. Marti Anderson, a Democrat from Des Moines, said the legislation would “give permanency and constitutional standing to victim rights that we already have in our law.” She said adding laws aiding victims to the constitution would ensure that they couldn’t be repealed or diminished.
But at a time when state budget cuts have reduced court system staffing and might force the temporary closure of dozens of courthouses, some question whether these requirements should be added to the constitution.
“There needs to be a careful look at this,” said Polk County Attorney John Sarcone. “County attorneys are certainly supportive of victim’s rights. It’s just to make sure we do it in a way that doesn’t create false senses of hope and is realistic in how things work.”
In South Dakota, lawmakers are seeking changes to Marsy’s Law requirements added to the state constitution in 2016 to reduce costs to county attorney’s offices.
Mark Vargo, Pennington County attorney in South Dakota, said his office has always notified victims of violent crimes about court proceedings. But Marsy’s Law increased the notification requirement to include crimes such as petty theft, prompting Vargo to hire more employees to keep up with notification demands.
Because the state didn’t provide funds for those salaries, Vargo said money was redirected from other county services.
Rep. Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Marion, said she’s spoken with legislators from other states that have adopted Marsy’s Law and believes Iowa’s version doesn’t repeat earlier mistakes.
For example, in South Dakota, all victims were enrolled in the notification system unless they asked to be removed. In Iowa, victims wouldn’t be added to the system until they told officials they wanted to be listed, a difference that supporters of the law say would make the process more efficient.
Iowa’s amendment also doesn’t include victims of non-violent misdemeanors, like trespassing or disorderly conduct, and Hinson said it relies upon a notification infrastructure already built into the state’s criminal justice process.
“As far as adding a burden on the system, which I think other states were concerned about, we don’t believe that will be the case here in Iowa,” Hinson said.
Hessburg, who heads the Iowa domestic violence group, said funding already is inadequate for such programs and have hindered other states’ abilities to follow Marsy’s Law. She cites a report from the California Crime Victims Assistance Association and the California District Attorneys Association, which addresses Marsy’s Law and highlights the notification requirements as “difficult to enforce because of a simple lack of resources.”
Sarcone said prosecutors also worry that the justice system sometimes could make it nearly impossible to abide by the proposed law’s notification requirements. For example, if someone is accused of assault one night and pleads guilty in their initial court appearance and is sentenced to a fine, “we wouldn’t even know about it,” he said.
Hinson said the bill’s language is being changed to deal with such issues.
If the legislation moves ahead, Sarcone said he hopes lawmakers will work with prosecutors in the next couple years to ensure court staffers understand the system.
“There needs to be a sit down with the people who actually deal with this day-in-and-day-out,” he said.