Catching Up With Victims’ Rights In South Dakota

Marsy’s Law is part of a national Crime Victims’ Rights movement that started in the 1970s as a result of the imbalance in the criminal justice system. Victims’ advocates argued that the criminal justice system had become preoccupied with defendants’ rights to the exclusion of considering the legitimate interest of crime victims. These advocates urged reforms to give more attention to victims’ concerns, including protecting victims’ rights to be notified of court hearings, to attend those hearings, and to be heard at those hearings – which are the primary objectives in Marsy’s Law.

The Victims’ Rights movement gained serious momentum in 1982 with the publication of the Report of the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime. The President’s task force concluded that the criminal justice system “has lost an essential balance…The system has deprived the innocent, the honest, and the helpless of its protection…The victims of crime have been transformed into a group oppressively burdened by a system designed to protect them. This oppression must be redressed.”

The President’s Task Force advocated multiple reforms, such as prosecutors assuming the responsibility for keeping victims notified of all court proceedings and bringing to the court’s attention the victim’s view on such subjects as bail, plea bargains, sentences and restitution. The Task Force also urged that courts should receive victim impact evidence at sentencing, order restitution in most cases, and allow victims and their families to attend trials even if they would be called as witnesses. In its most sweeping recommendation, the Task Force proposed a federal constitutional amendment to protect crime victims’ rights “to be present and to be heard at all critical stages of judicial proceedings.”

As a result of the Task Force’s recommendation for a constitutional amendment, crime victims’ advocates decided to work towards the passage of state constitutional amendments. Now more than thirty states have adopted victims’ rights amendments to their own state constitutions, which protect a wide range of victims’ rights.  South Dakota is one of the states that got left behind. While we did pass the SD Crime Victims’ Rights Act into state statute in 1991, we remain one of the last states to not have victim rights in our state constitution.

The President’s Task Force recommendations also resulted in changes to federal law. Congress has passed several acts to give further protection to victims’ rights, the most recent being the 2004 Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

The provisions that have become the model language of the language in Marsy’s Law comes from those Federal Acts and from other state constitutions. Every provision in Marsy’s Law is already law either in SD statute, Federal code or in another state’s constitution. The model language known as Marsy’s Law first passed in California in 2008 and most recently in Illinois in 2014 with 78% of the vote. Similar language was passed in Arizona in 1990 over twenty-five years ago and many other states since.

Marsy’s Law is proven to have worked well in other states without creating a burden on the criminal justice system and without raising costs. Crime victims deserve equal rights in the constitution and it is time to pass a constitutional amendment in South Dakota.  Please vote Yes on S in November!