Posted on Oct 25, 2017
Rotary Club of New Berlin, New Berlin Rotary
Working to strengthen victims' rights in Wisconsin
In November 1983, Marsalee "Marsy" Ann Nicholas, a 21-year-old student at University of California-Santa Barbara, was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend. Soon afterward, her mother and brother spotted the ex-boyfriend in public. That came as huge surprise: They didn't know he had been released on bail, as law enforcement was not required to inform them. (The ex-boyfriend was later convicted of second degree murder.) They channeled their shock into action and a movement that is sweeping the nation.
Marsy's brother, Henry, (along with his mother and stepfather) founded Homicide Victims, Inc., a non-profit organization that supports families of murder victims. A successful businessman and philanthropist, Henry Nicholas funds initiatives around the country to incorporate victims' rights language into state constitutions.
We leaned about this program during our meeting on Oct. 25. Luke Martz, Wisconsin State Director for Marsy's Law for Wisconsin, reviewed the process to date and discussed legislation pending in the Wisconsin's legislature.
California was the first state to pass the legislation, officially called the Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008. Since then, five states have passed similar measures; 11 others, including Wisconsin, have legislation pending. Often referred to as Marsy's Law, the legislation is tailored for each state where it is introduced, Martz says.
According to Martz, Wisconsin is a leader in promoting victims' rights. In 1993, Wisconsin passed the Crime Victims' Bill of Rights. "We have great victims' rights," he says. "What we're advocating for is equal rights." The constitutional modifications would strengthen rights already accorded crime victims.
The measures, AJR 47 and SJR 53, would add several rights to the state's constitution, including:
- The right to be treated with courtesy, fairness and respect.
- The right to receive timely notification of proceedings and other major developments.
- The right to be heard at plea or sentencing proceedings.
These changes wouldn't add any costs or other burdens to our judicial system, Martz says. Wisconsin already has many of the necessary systems in place. They also would not infringe upon the rights of the accused. The rights would apply not only to crime victims, but their family members and loved ones as well.
In a  survey taken recently, 78% of the respondents supported the measure. "We've got a nonpartisan, nonpolitical measure that everyone can get onboard about," he says.
A broad coalition of groups, among them Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Wisconsin Professional Police Association and Sojourner Family Peace Center, supports the measure, Martz says.
Amending Wisconsin's constitution is a three-step process. The bill must first pass both houses of the legislature. It must pass both houses again after a general election. The measure is then placed on the ballot during the following general election. If accepted by the voters, the proposed amendment is added to the constitution.
Should that occur, their work here in Wisconsin will be over. "When the job's done," Martz says, "we're done."
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