Do Victims of Crime Have Rights?

October 20, 1994

The answer to the question posed by the headline is "yes, but . . . ."

We mean that in two ways.

First, from the perspective of victims, yes, their rights exist in several state statutes, but judges, prosecutors and other functionaries in the criminal justice system often overlook, ignore or deny them those rights. The result is that those victims are not provided an opportunity to observe or participate in trials, sentencing hearings, parole hearings, etc., even if specified in law.

Second, from the perspective of opponents of the "victims' rights movement," yes, their rights as citizens exist but only insofar as they do not intrude into a process whose only principals are the defendant and the state that is prosecuting him.

Our own view has been that victims have limited rights, the exercise of which, if not restrained, could lead to even further injustices. The survivor of a murdered relative ought to be allowed to follow personally the search for justice, but not to the point at which that survivor's participation in the process results in either an unfairness to an innocent defendant or the failure to achieve a guilty verdict of a guilty defendant.

Question No. 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot "Establishes that crime victims have a right to be treated with respect and sensitivity throughout the criminal justice process; a right under certain circumstances to be notified of, to attend, and to be heard at, a criminal justice proceeding; and a right to be notified of these rights. No money claim or right to stay proceedings arises from this article."

It is and has long been our view that the Maryland Constitution is sufficiently cluttered as it is, that the public's business ought to be done by statute whenever possible.

It also has been our view that every right promised by Question No. 1 is already provided by present statutes. But leaders of the victims' rights movement and prosecutors have convinced us otherwise, in part because those rights are mere statutory rights rather than constitutional ones.

We still have doubts about the victims' rights movement. We don't believe the scales of justice ought to be tipped by either an excessively revengeful victim or an excessively forgiving one.

But we have come to believe that this amendment to the state's Constitution would make it much more likely that victims' desires and needs would be respected by the criminal justices system, without interferring with the rights of the principal actors in the process -- the state (the people) and the defendant.

On Question No. 1, we recommend a vote FOR the constitutional amendment.

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