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Critics Cite Flaws in KY Victims’ Rights Measure

Marsy's Law is a nationwide victim's rights effort largely funded by California billionaire Henry T. Nicholas III. (Adobe Stock)
Marsy's Law is a nationwide victim's rights effort largely funded by California billionaire Henry T. Nicholas III. (Adobe Stock)
October 29, 2020

FRANKFORT -- In less than a week, voters will decide whether to add victim's-rights legislation known as Marsy's Law to the state's Constitution.

The amendment is one of two measures appearing on this year's ballot.

But critics say the well-intentioned law has serious flaws and is an empty promise for victims.

Heather Gatnarek, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky said victims in the Commonwealth already have the right to be notified of court proceedings, and when a defendant is released from custody, as well as to be involved in decisions regarding plea agreements and to be heard at sentencing. Those rights exist in statute.

She believes victims and families of victims need more resources, and noted Marsy's Law does not allocate any additional funding toward protecting victims' rights.

"As often happens, that might be a matter of funding," Gatnarek explained. "It might be that prosecutors offices don't have enough victims' advocates on staff to help victims walk through this process, we may need to put resources towards this effort in our criminal legal system to ensure that victims' rights are protected, but Marsy's Law doesn't do that."

The ACLU and other criminal justice reform groups argue Marsy's Law unnecessarily complicates the criminal justice system and interferes with due process.

Supporters of Senate Bill 15, passed by state lawmakers early this year, say it strengthens protections for victims and their families.

Gatnarek also believes language in Marsy's Law is vague and inconsistent, and likely to overburden an already stressed criminal-justice system.

"We have 120 counties in Kentucky," Gatnarek noted. "There are courts in all of those counties, and we will be putting our judiciary in a position where they are supposed to parse through this and figure out what it is that this law actually means without any kind of guidance given."

A few years ago, Marsy's Law appeared on voters' ballots, but the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the measure.

At the time voters had just one sentence on which to base a decision. Gatnarek noted the 2020 ballot description is an improvement.

"The Kentucky Supreme Court held that one line did not properly advise voters as to what the amendment actually was," Gatnareck stated. "So it's back on the ballot now with the full language, which I do think is an improvement. I think it is important that people take a look at the full language."

Since 2008, a handful of states, including California, Illinois, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Montana, have enacted Marsy's Law constitutional amendments.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - KY