Thursday, May 16, 2002

Victim rights endorsed


Ashcroft stumps for amendment at Ohio meeting

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on Wednesday pushed for a victims' rights amendment to the Constitution, telling advocates in Ohio that the nation must “balance the scales of justice.”

        “While government cannot offer the one thing that victims wish for most, a return to the way life was before violence intruded, government can do more than it has in the past,” he said.

        Mr. Ashcroft was the keynote speaker at Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery's victims' assistance conference. About 1,400 people who work with victims of violent crime attended the conference, billed as the largest of its kind in the nation.

        Last month, Sens. Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, and Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, introduced the bipartisan victims' rights proposal in the Senate. President Bush has endorsed it.

        The amendment would need to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate and then ratified by 38 of the 50 states.

        It would require that victims of violent crimes be notified of court proceedings and be allowed to testify in sentencing and parole hearings for their perpetrators. It also would require courts to consider claims of restitution for victims.

        Mr. Kyl and Ms. Feinstein introduced the bill in 2000 but pulled it after an onslaught of criticism that it would needlessly change the nation's charter.

        This time around, some congressional Democrats continue to oppose amending the Constitution, saying a federal law is the better route.

        Mr. Ashcroft said the legal system properly protects the rights of the accused but inadequately protects the rights of victims, despite the passage of more than 27,000 victims' rights laws and 32 state constitutional amendments.

        “It is time — it is past time — to balance the scales of justice; to demand fairness and judicial integrity not just for the accused, but for the aggrieved as well,” Mr. Ashcroft said.

        He called Ohio a champion of victims' rights initiatives and a national leader.

        In 1994, the state added a victims' rights amendment to its constitution. It says “victims of criminal offenses shall be accorded fairness, dignity, and respect in the criminal justice process.” The amendment also says victims have a right to have a meaningful role in the justice process.

        Over the past few years, every Ohio county has established fully funded programs, made possible by federal grants the state gets each year, said Joe Case, a spokesman for Ms. Montgomery.

        The state received $16 million last year and will receive $14.6 million this year in federal grants to fund court-based victim assistance programs.

        Kirby Ellison, an employee of Hillsboro Victims' Rights in Highland County, said she hopes the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will make Congress and states see the federal amendment is needed.

        “It should have been done a long time ago,” Ms. Ellison said.

        Kathy Boaz, executive director of Crisis Care Line in Van Wert, said the rights of victims often are overlooked.

        “Their opinions, their experiences matter,” she said. “The victims are left out of the process, and they shouldn't be.”

       



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