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Will Ohio Voters Enshrine Crime Victims' Rights in State Constitution?

Voters in three states approved similar ballot measures last year, but critics say it's unnecessary and could gum up the criminal justice system.

victims rights
This story is part of our elections coverage. Read our list of the most important races and ballot measures to watch here.

Ohio could become the latest state to expand the rights of crime victims under a so-called Marsy's Law, adding new protections to the state constitution. But critics say the law would impede the criminal justice process in the state.

Voters will weigh in on the proposed measure at the ballot box next month. Proponents say Ohio currently doesn't do enough to ensure that courts keep victims and their families informed about developments in a criminal case. Marsy's Law would give victims the right to refuse "discovery requests by the accused." In other words, courts could not force victims to turn over evidence or to be interviewed by a defendant's attorneys.

Opponents of the measure, including two of Ohio's largest legal associations, say the added protections would slow down court proceedings and pit victims' rights against a defendant's right to a speedy trial and the right to confront his or her accuser. What's more, critics say, the new measure would not actually improve how courts communicate with victims. 

"We’re not against victims’ rights. We’re against this measure," says Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young. "They’re separate."

Most of the proposed measures are actually already law in Ohio; the new initiative would merely enshrine them in the constitution. But that's important, advocates say. "We have had some protections for crime victims already on the books," says Aaron Marshall, a spokesman for Marsy's Law for Ohio. "The real problem we see in Ohio is in the enforcement of these crime victims' laws." In some parts of the state, prosecutors and advocates already honor victims rights, but it's not applied consistently across the state, Marshall says. "We don’t think where the crime happens should matter."

Rather than add the rights to the constitution, say Young and others, Ohio ought to devote more resources and training to enhance its existing victims' services. He notes that Marsy's Law specifically states that victims would not have a legal course of action against the state or a political subdivision if government violates crime victims' constitutional rights. "What we need is an enforcement provision, some sort of liability" when prosecutors or victims advocates fail to give notice, he says.

The state Office of Management and Budget predicts that local court systems and public defenders could see an increase in costs if Marsy's Law passes. The measure would likely result in a new wave of court appeals and added staffing in some parts of the state. 

The Ohio ballot measure is part of a national campaign bankrolled by California tech billionaire Henry Nicholas. Despite opposition from Young, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Ohio State Bar Association, the initiative appears on track to pass. An August poll released by the Marsy's Law for Ohio campaign found that 71 percent of likely voters supported the victims' rights measure when first asked about it. No public polling is available yet on question. 

Proponents have dubbed measures like the one in Ohio as Marsy’s Law in reference to Nicholas’ sister, who was stalked and murdered in 1983 by a former boyfriend. A week after the murder, Nicholas and his mother encountered her killer out on bail and shopping at the grocery store. They didn't know he was out of jail.

Nicholas has given almost $3 million to the campaign. So far, no one has organized a formal opposition campaign or raised money against Marsy's Law. Even critics like Young predict it will pass. 

The measure has support from a long list of state and local elected officials in both parties, including Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine, Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson, a Democrat, and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, also a Democrat. The state sheriffs association and 14 out of the state's 88 county prosecutors have also endorsed the measure. 

"This is politics. Opposing Marsy’s Law is dangerous," Young says, adding that elected officials have "been told very clearly they will be labeled as against victims' rights in primary races."

Since 2008, voters in California, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota have passed versions of Marsy’s Law. Similar measures will appear on the 2018 ballot in Nevada and Oklahoma. Some state legislatures have resisted lobbying for stronger legal protections of crime victims. In the past two years, proponents failed to get Marsy's Law passed in Hawaii and Idaho. Eventually, Nicholas hopes to amend the U.S. Constitution with the same bill of rights for crime victims.

In at least one state, there has been formal pushback against implementing Marsy's Law. The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Montana Association of Counties have sued to keep the Montana version of Marsy's Law from taking effect. They argue the ballot measure should have appeared as multiple ballot questions since it changes eight sections of the state constitution. The attorney for Lewis and Clark County, which includes the state capitol, says the new law will cost $95,000 in annual expenses and may result in higher taxes or decreased services -- including services for victims. They are awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court. 

This story is part of our elections coverage. Read our list of the most important races and ballot measures to watch here.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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