- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

As America prepares to celebrate the beginning of National Crime Victims' Rights Week on Sunday, we believe that Congress should act to give the more than 6 million victims of violent crime every year the rights to be informed, present and heard at critical stages in the criminal justice process.

President Bush's and Attorney General John Ashcroft's endorsement this week of the Feinstein-Kyl Victims' Rights Constitutional Amendment gives an important boost to victims' groups who have been fighting for so many years to give crime victims the constitutional protection they deserve.

We do not approach amending the Constitution lightly. Thus, we have been working closely with constitutional scholars and other legal experts to make sure that our amendment does not disrupt our national charter's ingenious compromise.

As Mr. Bush stated, "The Feinstein-Kyl Amendment was written with care, and strikes a proper balance. The protection of victims' rights is one of those rare instances when amending the Constitution is the right thing to do. And the Feinstein-Kyl Crime Victims' Rights Amendment is the right way to do it."

We need a victims' rights constitutional amendment because of people such as Roberta Roper, Sharon Christian, Ross and Betty Parks and Virginia Bell. Ms. Roper was denied the opportunity to watch the trial of her daughter's murderer; Ms. Christian was not informed of her rapist's release from custody and ran into him two weeks after the attack; Mr. and Mrs. Parks were never consulted regarding a seven-year delay in the trial of their daughter's killer; and Ms. Bell suffered debilitating and expensive injuries from a mugging but received only $387 in restitution.

A constitutional amendment will help balance the scales of justice. Currently, while criminal defendants have almost two dozen separate constitutional rights 15 of them provided by amendments to the U.S. Constitution crime victims have absolutely none. Crime victims deserve a fundamental right to be considered in proceedings and decisions that profoundly affect their lives.

Indeed, the Victims' Rights Amendment will restore rights that existed when our Constitution was written. Two hundred years ago, it was standard practice in America for victims not public prosecutors to prosecute criminal cases. Because victims were parties to most criminal cases, they received as a matter of course basic rights to receive notice, be present and be heard. Victims today should possess at least some of the same rights they once enjoyed.

It is true that virtually every state has statutory protections for victims, and 32 states have adopted victims' rights amendments to their state constitutions. However, these state statutory and constitutional laws form a ragged patchwork across the country. Only a federal constitutional amendment can provide a minimum national standard for victims' rights.

Moreover, mere state law has proven inadequate to protect victims' rights. For example, a U.S. Justice Department-sponsored report found that, even in states with strong legal protections for victims' rights, many victims are denied those rights. This report concluded that state safeguards are insufficient to guarantee victims' rights, and that only a federal constitutional amendment can ensure that crime victims receive the rights they are due.

Federal statutory law is also insufficient. A leading statutory alternative to the Victims' Rights Amendment, for example, would only directly cover certain violent crimes prosecuted in federal court, thus slighting the more than 98 percent of victims of violent crime whose cases are prosecuted in state courts. And in the Oklahoma City bombing trial, two federal victims' rights statutes were not enough to give victims of the bombing a clear right to watch the trial and still testify at the sentencing even though one of the statutes was passed with the specific purpose of allowing the victims to do just that.

Support for a victims' rights constitutional amendment is strong. Most states have adopted similar measures by an average popular vote of almost 80 percent. And 49 governors, 40 state attorneys general, five federal attorneys general, and the Democratic and Republican Party Platforms have all called for a victims' rights constitutional amendment.

Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe calls the lack of a victims' rights constitutional amendment "an enormous iceberg of indifference." Congress should act promptly to melt this iceberg. It is the least that we owe to those whom we have failed to protect.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a California Democrat and Sen. Jon Kyl is an Arizona Republican.


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