Hollow Symbolism of Victims Bill

February 13, 1994

In the name of fighting crime, the General Assembly appears poised to approve a referendum on a "victims rights" constitutional amendment that even its key supporters admit would not stop one thug from plying his trade. They also concede that the measure's value is far more symbolic than substantive. As Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the state's top law enforcement official, blithely put it, "Well, so what? What's wrong with a symbol if you really feel good about it?"

And there you have it: The irresistible symbolism of this proposal is precisely why every Annapolis politician seeking re-election in 1994 has lined up behind it, including many who formerly opposed it. The pols know are fully aware that in this year of anti-crime posturing, few things will play as well on the stump as their having favored a bill that is named for "victims rights" and supposedly fights back against criminals.

The amendment would do nothing of the sort. Its aim is to guarantee three provisions that already are among the more than 30 victims rights laws the legislature has passed since the early 1980s. This abundance of statutes partly explains why lawmakers blocked previous attempts to pass the amendment -- until this year, when every state seat is up for grabs in a political season made all the more competitive by redistricting.

As for the (already existing) provisions to be guaranteed by the amendment, proponents themselves point out that judges could continue to allow or disallow them as they see fit and that no victim could take civil action for any violation of the amendment. Which raises the inevitable question: Why does such a hollow measure need to be added to the Constitution, let alone take up time during the assembly? Just as inevitably, the answer comes back: It's good politics, that's why. Not good legislation -- the amendment's potential harm to the presumption of innocence, due process and a fair, speedy trial could outweigh any benefits it might produce -- but good politics for sure.

Certainly crime victims should be accommodated by the legal system within reason, as the legislature has often affirmed. But if the laws concerning a victim's place in criminal proceedings must be fine-tuned, then lawmakers should do so through statutes instead of an ineffectual appendage to the Constitution. What's more, reasonable complaints about the judicial process could be taken to the rules committee of the state Court of Appeals.

Our legal system, though imperfect, does a good job of convicting violent criminals and sentencing them to lengthy terms. A few jurists and lawyers might abuse the process, but the vast majority of judges and attorneys are mindful of showing the proper respect to victims and defendants alike. The proposed victims amendment offers nothing to improve these proceedings. Its main beneficiaries would be the lawmakers savvy enough to latch onto a classic feel-good symbol when one comes along at the right time, however empty it might be.

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