Crime victims’ rights bill passes in Illinois

By Ali Braboy

Illinois passed the first constitutional amendment on crime victims’ rights 22 years ago, but Tuesday marked a resounding yes to another amendment to enforce those rights for citizens.

The referendum on the Illinois midterm election ballot received 77.9 percent of votes in favor, meeting the required three-fifths supermajority to add the amendment to the constitution.

Previously, some victims faced restrictions to these rights, including the inability to make a victim impact statement and to obtain important information regarding the defendant, such as whether the individual obtained bail.

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, director of Marsy’s Law for Illinois, has been involved in the fight for crime victims’ rights for many years. Bishop-Jenkin’s sister, her sister’s husband and their baby were murdered in Chicago in 1990.

She said the day before the hearing for the sentencing of the murderer, she received a call that told her the court would not be taking a victim impact statement, which would have allowed to her speak during the hearing.

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Bishop-Jenkins said she was deeply affected and giving the statement would have given her and her family some resolution.

“I didn’t know at that time that that was a violation of actual rights,” she said. “We actually had a right to make that statement and that we were being denied that right.”

While the Crime Victims’ Rights amendment was first added to the Illinois constitution in 1992, limiting laws did not allow crime victims to appeal if their rights were violated.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office held roundtables in 2008, in which crime victims and advocates discussed the challenges that occurred in the criminal justice system. From the roundtables, these members gathered documentation that showed there were many violations of crime victims’ rights, Bishop-Jenkins said.

After the gatherings, a coalition of groups against violence began advocating to amend the constitution, she said.

In May 2008, Oregon amended its constitution to allow victims to appeal to higher courts, leaving Illinois as the only state to contain language barring the enforcement of crime victims’ rights.

Kerri True-Funk, executive director of Rape Advocacy, Counseling, and Education Services in Urbana, said she had attended a roundtable held by Madigan’s office in 2008.

The Rape Advocacy, Counseling, & Education Services group has advocated for the amendment to pass by distributing yard signs and performing outreach programs to educate people in the area about the amendment, True-Funk said.

She said the next step is to educate survivors and their families, so they can understand how their rights will now be affected. She said they will provide resources so victims can recognize if their rights are being violated.

“It’s a real showing of the voters’ understanding that victims of crime deserve to be protected and to have their rights respected,” True-Funk said.

Bishop-Jenkins said she doesn’t believe violations were usually intentional, but rather occurred because a member of the justice system was overloaded with work or had forgotten an important aspect in a case regarding the victim.

Bishop-Jenkins said she met individuals in 2009 involved with Marsy’s Law for All in California, a group who successfully worked to bring rights to crime victims in 2008 and changed the California constitution. The group said it wanted to help crime victims do the same in Illinois.

Susan Kang Schroeder, district attorney chief of staff for Orange County in California said the outcome of the Illinois general election tells people how Illinois voters feel about crime victims: that they deserved more rights.

“This is exactly in line with what we need to do to be compassionate with people who have actually suffered the harm,” she said.

After the constitutional amendment passed on Nov. 4, the next step is to decide how implementation will take place by answering questions such as what procedures will be taken to enable legislation and give officials the authority to enforce the law, which will become effective in the next legislation session in January of 2015.

“I’m very proud and excited of the fact that all of the young people at the University of Illinois are now going to be growing up in a state and functioning as adults now in a state where they will never have to worry about whether or not a rape victim, a domestic violence victim, a child abuse victim, a victim of assault, a murder victim’s family member, is protected in court,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “For a lot of us it’s going to be a big change, but hopefully for you guys it will soon become the norm.”

Ali can be reached at [email protected].