A pound-of-flesh amendment

December 14, 1993

Despite its flaws, the American justice system works. At times it has not been as sensitive as it could be to the victims of crime and their survivors, which is why state governments, such as Maryland's, have recently passed laws asserting the rights of crime victims. Maryland's General Assembly has approved more than 30 such laws since 1983.

But that apparently isn't enough for victims rights advocates in this state. Over the past few years, they have asked lawmakers to approve a constitutional amendment "guaranteeing" the rights already passed as statutes. The advocates say judges sometimes ignore the existing measures at their own discretion; thus, an amendment is necessary to give the laws some enforcement teeth.

The legislature, most notably the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, has blocked previous attempts to pass the amendment. Next session, however, the bill will be backed by some powerful Annapolis officials. Too, growing public uneasiness over crime could make the amendment tough for politicians to knock down during an election year.

We have serious problems with this amendment, which we urge lawmakers to consider before they rubber-stamp a resolution for public judgment next November. Some of our objections:

* As stated above, 30-plus victims rights laws already exist. Among them are the three provisions at the heart of the proposed amendment. There's simply no need for a symbolic constitutional appendage judges could sidestep as easily as they do existing laws. The advocates themselves insist that judges could continue to allow or disallow the provisions as they choose and that no victim could take civil action for any violation of the amendment.

* The amendment would have no impact on crime, though that won't keep its sponsors and supporters from pushing it as a crime-fighting measure. At the same time, excessive advocacy for victims rights poses a threat to the basic American guarantees of the presumption of innocence, due process and a fair, speedy trial.

* The system does work. A tiny percentage of jurists and defense lawyers may abuse the process, but overall our courts are very successful in gaining convictions and long prison stays, say legal experts. A few aberrations shouldn't serve as an excuse for altering a justice system that, while imperfect, gets the job done.

As the legislature has repeatedly affirmed, crime victims should indeed be accommodated by the legal system within reason. And if further adjustments need be made, lawmakers should make them with the scalpel-like precision of a statute instead of the cleaver approach of a constitutional amendment. But a vague, pound-of-flesh amendment that does far more for the agendas of politicians and interest groups than for the cause of justice should not be taken seriously. Lawmakers, especially the House Judiciary Committee, should take the correct and courageous action and, once again, set aside this proposal when it comes before them during the '94 session.

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