Column: Add rights for crime victims to Florida Constitution

Published April 12, 2018

Throughout my career as a prosecutor, legislator and now member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, preserving Floridians' civil rights and reforming our criminal justice system have been two of my top priorities. CRC Proposal 96, Marsy's Law for Florida, combines these inherent passions and I am proud to support my fellow commissioner, Tim Cerio, as a co-sponsor of the measure.

Whether you are a Republican, Democrat or No Party Affiliation voter, we can all agree crime victims deserve clear, enforceable rights in our state Constitution, equal to those of the accused, nothing more and nothing less. I am honored to join with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure all victims of crime are provided a voice in the criminal justice system.

This week is National Crime Victims' Rights Week, which is an annual movement to motivate recognition for victims' rights. "Expand the Circle: Reach All Victims" is this year's theme, which emphasizes the importance of providing support for all victims of crime, regardless of race, age, gender or sexual orientation. It is imperative that our communities work to reach all victims, especially minorities or those in underrepresented communities.

Over the last few months, I have heard from too many crime victims and victims' advocates — women who were sexually abused as children, mothers whose children were murdered, husbands of homicide victims and leaders of victims' support centers. Their stories of feeling alone, voiceless and lacking valuable information deeply resonated with me and reinforced why Marsy's Law is needed.

Marsy's Law for Florida would give victims basic, commonsense rights and protections — many of which people probably believe are already provided to victims. Among the rights and protections Marsy's Law would provide:

• The right to be present at any court proceedings related to their case.

• The right to speak at their perpetrator's plea hearing or sentencing, especially if the outcome may result in the offender's release.

• The right to know if the person who victimized them is about to be released from prison.

• The right to be free from intimidation, harassment and abuse.

• The right to prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim's family, or which could disclose confidential or privileged information of the victim.

• The right to full and timely restitution.

I also have heard from a few individuals who have objections about certain victims' rights they don't believe belong in the Constitution. The Constitution is our state's most sacred legal document, and any change should not be taken lightly. I certainly appreciate their concern.

During the commission process, we worked with those who had concerns to create the proposal we have today. One of the most significant changes to Marsy's Law, and one that drew the greatest concern among some in the legal community, was the right for a victim to choose to participate in a defense deposition or not. The provision was taken out of the latest version of Marsy's Law for Florida prior to receiving 30 favorable votes from members of the full commission. Within the next week, the full CRC will take a second and final vote on Marsy's Law for Florida.

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If the amendment is placed on the November ballot by the CRC and passed by voters, we will finally be able tell sexual assault victims that they have the same constitutional protection as their attacker. We will be able to tell the mother of a murdered child that her voice is as legally important as the person's voice who murdered her daughter.

Both supporters and opponents of Proposal 96 agree crime victims should be treated with respect and compassion. But by not giving them basic protections in the Constitution, our system revictimizes them again and again. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these victims' stories. Florida crime victims have spoken, and it is time for us to listen. If passed by the CRC and approved by 60 percent of Florida voters, Marsy's Law would finally bring balance to the scales of justice in Florida.

As we commemorate National Crime Victims' Rights Week, I encourage Floridians to reflect on how our state treats crime victims — and how we can do better.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, serves District 19, covering Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and is a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.