Give crime victims right to speak in Ky. courts

Eileen Recktenwald
Eileen Recktenwald

By now, most of America has heard about the horrific Stanford University rape case. This tragedy was pushed into the public eye after a 12-page victim-impact statement, read by the victim to her attacker in the courtroom, went viral.

The details of this young woman’s assault are harrowing. While many were ultimately disappointed with the judge’s ruling — the attacker was sentenced to only six months in prison — this victim was afforded a right that many sexual-assault victims here in Kentucky are not: the constitutional right to have her voice heard in court.

Kentucky is one of only 18 states that offers no constitutional-level rights for crime victims and their families. The commonwealth does, however, offer constitutional rights to the convicted and accused.

Marsy’s Law for Kentucky, an advocate-driven campaign to incorporate a victims’ bill of rights in the state constitution, would give victims across Kentucky the voice they deserve by ensuring, constitutionally, that they have a seat at the table when navigating the criminal justice system.

Under Marsy’s Law, sexual-assault victims would have the constitutional right to be involved in any negotiations related to plea agreements and would be able to provide input before an agreement is reached. It would also establish constitutional-level rights for victims to be present at court proceedings and to be heard at plea or sentencing proceedings or any process that may result in the offender’s release.

Kentucky currently has many of these rights outlined in statute, but they are largely unenforceable. Marsy’s Law would strengthen the rights that victims currently have by ensuring they are not just written down, but codified as well.

California, where the Stanford rape trial took place, was the first state to pass Marsy’s Law in 2008. This case proves that the law does not guarantee outcomes or create an uneven playing field that favors victims over the accused. What it does do is ensure the rights of the victim are equal to those of the accused.

While tragic, this case is a critical example of why it is so important to give victims the opportunity to be heard in court. This young woman’s story has now been heard not just by her attacker and the judge, but by millions around the world.

Her victim-impact statement has sparked a long overdue conversation about sexual assault and the lifelong impact it has on victims. This case has also raised awareness of an issue that we at the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs are working every day to address.

It is our hope that enacting legislation to elevate the rights of victims would encourage victims to come forward and, ultimately, break down some of the social stigmas associated with sexual assault. These men and women have already suffered at the hands of criminals; they shouldn’t have to suffer further at the hands of a partial judicial system and unfair public perception.

To enact Marsy’s Law for Kentucky, the measure must first pass the legislature. Last year, it had broad bipartisan support but did not get called for a vote in the House. Polls show that 80 percent of Kentuckians would vote to incorporate a victims’ bill of rights in the state constitution if the issue was on the ballot.

Kentucky can give victims the voice and constitutional-level protections they deserve by passing Marsy’s Law during the 2017 General Assembly.

Eileen Recktenwald is executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs.