Politics & Government

Should Kentucky have a bill of rights for crime victims? You’ll decide in November.

House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne, R-Prospect, during the General Assembly in the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Monday, January 8, 2018.
House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne, R-Prospect, during the General Assembly in the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Monday, January 8, 2018.

It wasn’t long after her brother was killed in Lewis County in 2000 that Melissa Buchanan began receiving threatening phone calls from two of his killers. The police told her there was nothing they could do about it.

“When this was happening with the harassment, I went to my local law enforcement and they told me there was nothing they could do unless either myself or one of the kids was harmed,” Buchanan, wearing a button with a picture of her brother’s face, said Wednesday.

The Kentucky General Assembly came one step closer to changing that Thursday when the House gave final passage to Senate Bill 3, a proposal that would add a victim’s bill of rights to the Kentucky Constitution. Voters will now decide the issue at the ballot box in November.

The measure, known as Marsy’s Law for a college student killed in California by a stalker, would create a constitutional right for victims to receive restitution, be notified of court proceedings, be heard in any court proceeding, be notified when an offender is released from custody, and be present at the trial, among other things.

Buchanan “would have benefited from the right to notice, the right to be present, the right to be heard and, importantly, the right to have her safety and her family’s safety be a consideration with bail decisions, release decisions and the disposition of the case,” said state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, the sponsor of the bill.

Should voters approve the amendment, Kentucky will become the 36th state with constitutional protections for victims of crime and the seventh state to pass Marsy’s Law.

Crime victims already have statutory protections in Kentucky, but victim’s rights advocates say those laws don’t go far enough in the courtroom and are often overruled by the defendant’s rights.

State Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, said that as a Kentucky State Police officer he was often frustrated by the lack of rights for victims.

“There is only so much you can do when the victims have only statutorial rights compared to those of the perpetrator, who has state and federal constitutional rights,” Blanton said. “Senate Bill 3 seeks to balance the scale of justice without diminishing the rights of the accused.”

Not all groups are convinced that it won’t diminish the rights of the accused. Members of the ACLU and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified against the bill in committee, saying they were concerned it could further complicate an already strained criminal justice system.

Rep. Chad McCoy, R-Bardstown, was one of three who voted against the bill Wednesday, saying his county attorney was against the bill and that he was reluctant to open up the constitution to provide additional individual rights.

“I am not somebody who thinks we should be messing with the constitution for individual rights, especially when we can do it by statute,” McCoy said.

Marsy’s law is the first bill to pass both chambers of the 2018 legislative session. Westerfield said victim’s rights advocates will now shift their attention to convincing the public of the need for the constitutional amendment.

On Election Day, Kentucky voters will be asked this question: “Are you in favor of providing constitutional rights to victims of crime, including the right to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and the right to be informed and to have a voice in the judicial process?”

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics