Anyone can become a victim of crime, and each day in our state, innocent people are subjected to terrible acts against them that change their lives forever. If surviving the crime isn’t tough enough, victims then have to navigate a criminal justice system that can make them feel like they are the ones on trial.
As a police officer with 30 years’ experience, and as a crime victim myself, I know firsthand how good people can be harmed in unthinkable ways only to feel shut out when they needed support the most. It was that background that led me to champion the effort to amend Wisconsin’s Constitution to give strong, enforceable rights to victims of crime, commonly known as Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin. Just like criminal defendants have strong constitutional rights, so should crime victims.
There are several sections in our state Constitution protecting the rights of the accused, as there should be. The proposed amendment simply puts the victims of crime on a more equal playing field with those accused of committing crimes.
Wisconsin was one of the first states to protect victims in its constitution. However, in the decades since Wisconsin adopted its victim rights amendment, other states have passed us by, providing stronger and additional rights. Our proposed amendment strengthens and builds upon some of the Wisconsin constitutional rights. For example, victims now have the right to be heard at disposition. If we adopt this proposal that constitutional right to be heard is expanded to proceedings like release and plea hearings. Why shouldn’t a victim’s voice be heard any time a judge is considering conditions for release?
Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin also takes some well-established statutory provisions and elevates them to a constitutional level – such as requiring a court to consider the complete impact of the crime on the victim when reviewing the case. This is important because when a victim’s statutory rights are being considered in a courtroom they are often trumped by the constitutional rights of the accused. By including the right of the victim in the Constitution, we can ensure the judge has to treat the right of victim equal to the right of the accused.
Notice I didn’t say the right of the victim was greater than the accused. That wouldn’t be fair either. No rights are taken away from anyone, including criminal defendants, in this amendment. Instead we just want victims to have rights that are treated equally under the law to those of the criminal defendant. In fact, we even added specific language to the proposed amendment that says: “This section is not intended and may not be interpreted to supersede a defendant’s federal constitutional rights.”
One of the provisions of the proposed amendment gives victims the simple right to know their rights. Nearly everyone can recite an accused person’s rights. “You have the right to remain silent…” Crime victims should know their rights too. Maybe most importantly, Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin will give crime victims the constitutional right to enforce their rights in court – something our current constitution does not have.
As the Senate author of the proposed amendment, I am proud of all the work we put into getting the language right. Amending the Wisconsin constitution is a long and arduous process – as it should be. The effort to strengthen victims’ constitutional rights began back in in late 2016 when we started working with then-Attorney General Brad Schimel and the Office of Crime Victim Services. We then sought input from criminal justice stakeholders including district attorneys, victim service agencies, police chiefs, sheriffs and even the Public Defender’s Office. We did countless hours of hearings and meetings. The end result of all of those conversations is a proposal uniquely written for Wisconsin victims. It is so “Wisconsin-centric” that the proposal passed the Legislature with broad support from the most conservative members of our body to even some of the liberal ones. And, I am incredibly proud the over 400 endorsements from law enforcement, victims’ advocacy groups and crime survivors.
Please don’t forget to vote yes on additional rights for crime victims.
Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) is a State Senator representing the 21st district and a former Racine Police Officer.