Iowa House committee approves victims' right resolution

The State Capitol building is shown in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The State Capitol building is shown in Des Moines on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A resolution to add victims’ rights — many of them already in Iowa law — to the state Constitution was approved by the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The Senate likely will follow suit later this week.

House Joint Resolution 2003 would allow crime victims to choose to be notified about proceedings in the case, the right to be present, heard and respected throughout the process and to have the right to restitution, floor manager Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, told the committee.

“This is a passionate issue for many people, including myself,” Hinson said at a hearing on the bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee likely will take action on a similar resolution this week, according to Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, floor manager of Senate Study Bill 3040.

The proposals are similar to California’s Marsy’s Law, named after a woman killed in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend. Thirty-four other state constitutions have similar language.

Before victims’ right can be added to the Constitution, the resolution must be approved by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and then approved by voters. The earliest it could be on the ballot is 2020.

The resolution was approved 16-5, with bipartisan support in the committee despite concerns that it both goes too far in its requirements of the judicial system and not far enough to truly protect victims if they believe their rights have been denied.

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Some lawmakers questioned the need for a constitutional amendment when the rights being sought are in Chapter 915 of Iowa law.

“I get it, I understand that a victim has the right to be treated with fairness and dignity, and maybe that should be a constitutional amendment,” Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines, said.

However, he added that giving a victim the right to be “present and heard in any proceeding involving a release, plea sentencing, disposition (or) parole” would be costly and time-consuming, he said. For example, a defendant entering a plea — something typically done in writing for misdemeanors — would have to be delayed until the victim was present.

“What this would do would change the entire judicial system in the way it currently it operates” that would increase costs at a time when the Judicial Branch is in line for midyear budget cuts.

If the goal is to give victims rights, Olson continued, then they must have the ability to sue if they don’t get the fairness and dignity guaranteed by the Constitution.

“We’ve got to give this thing teeth,” Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, added. “Would you give us the right to sue with triple damages? Something that gives it real good teeth to make sure that it’s enforced?

Hinson said she would consider that. However, that was a concern for county attorneys who, along with law enforcement, the parole board, the governor and others, likely would be the targets of those lawsuits.

The prosecutors believe that with or without the language Meyer suggested, putting victims’ rights in the Constitution gives victims a cause for action — personally and professionally — against them and anyone else who is a part of the judicial process, such as law enforcement, court and parole board personnel and the governor.

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At a subcommittee hearing earlier in the day, lawmakers heard criticism from groups providing victim services. The amendment is vague, “very fluffy language without anything specific to survivors,” said Kerri True-Funk of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The resolution doesn’t address the costs associated with victims’ rights. Funding for those services was cut by the Legislature last year.

“We’re hopeful that you all will take a moment to step back from some feel good legislation,” she said, and instead look at Chapter 915 of the Iowa Code that addresses victim rights.

The Code can be changed, repealed and diminished more easily than a constitutional amendment, according to Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, who has been advocating for victims’ right for 20 years.

“If there is a constitutional right to be notified, present, heard, protected and to collect restitution, then those have more strength than a law has,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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