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How advocates say Marsy's Law will put crime victims on equal footing
Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard , right, is hugged by Amanda Batchelor Friday, April 13, 2018 as Woodard is honored with the Victims’ Rights Week Award during the Victims' Rights Week Ceremony at the Hall County Sheriff's Office. The annual event honors champions in advocating for expanded support and services to communities affected by crime. - photo by Scott Rogers

Before Georgia’s Crime Victims Bill of Rights was enacted in 1995, there was no requirement for a victim to know the defendant was going to trial.

“If the prosecutor wanted to use their testimony, of course they’d be notified because they’d be given a subpoena. But let’s say it was a child victim that they weren’t going to use the children as a witness. The parents might not even be told this case is coming to trial. It was completely optional to the prosecutor whether they did or not,” said Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard. 

If Amendment 4, Marsy’s Law, is approved by a majority of voters on Nov. 6, much of the bill of rights will go from being a statutory right to a constitutionally protected right.

“Where victim’s rights and defendant’s rights clash, they could be considered on equal footing, as opposed to a statute not being enforced in certain jurisdictions or not considered equal to that of a defendant,” Woodard said.

The rights of crime victims in the state constitution would be providing “reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any scheduled court proceedings involving the alleged act or changes to the scheduling of such proceedings” as well as if the accused is arrested, released or escaped, according to Senate Resolution 146. They would also have the right to not “be excluded from any scheduled court proceedings involving the alleged act” and right to be heard at any proceeding involving release, plea or sentencing.

Woodard worked in crafting the language along with fellow prosecutors, though some language was originally untenable.

“There was language about the victim being able to hire a private attorney to intercede in the criminal case, to be able to file motions, to stop or change the course of the trial,” she said.

On the state level, Woodard said most of the notification happens automatically when a person serving a prison sentence is released.

“Out of 159 counties, there are plenty of counties that are not aware or even staffed sufficiently to be aware of those things, much less enforce them,” she said.

Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said he does not believe it will increase costs for Hall County to stay in compliance if the amendment passes in November.

“We have long been set up for giving victims a voice in the system through Georgia statutory law and our own policies, and more resources won’t be required to implement that which essentially in large part already exists,” Darragh said. 

Other states have had varied estimates and results when required to provide compliant victim notification systems.

The North Carolina General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division assessed its House Bill 551 and found it would cost roughly $8.8 million as a state impact for fiscal year 2021. 

“The Conference of DAs estimates that the workload created by the changes in the bill would require state funding for 150 (full-time equivalent) of victim service coordinator positions that are currently grant-funded,” according to the research division.

Marsy’s Law for Idaho requested an assessment by the economic consulting firm ECONorthwest in 2017 to estimate the financial impact of the law. The group sampled five counties and extrapolated out for Idaho’s 44 counties.

The estimate in Idaho was 13.2 additional full-time equivalent staff positions statewide costing $553,000 each year.

“This amount is less than 0.2 percent of the $326 million dollars allocated for public safety in Idaho’s (fiscal year 2017) budget,” according to the report.

According to an article by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, North Dakota’s counties and state government “have spent more than $800,000 updating automatic victim notification systems to cover more criminal proceedings.”

Some have expressed concern about vaulting these rights to our state constitution, such as Benita Dodd, vice president of the nonprofit think tank Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

“Since 2011, Georgia legislators have made nationally recognized advances in criminal justice reforms, understanding that it’s time to get ‘smart on crime.’ Part of being smart on crime is realizing that while law enforcement and its agencies fall short in some areas of the victim rights’ statute, that should be resolved with a targeted legislative remedy, not a constitutional amendment that quite possibly could undo years of progress,” Dodd wrote in a December 2017 piece for the nonprofit.

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget did not release a fiscal note for this senate resolution.

The Times sent an inquiry to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia on any concerns regarding fiscal strain on smaller judicial circuit. Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston, who covers Whitfield and Murray counties, saying the “fiscal impact should be minimal.”  

Several states have some form of Marsy’s Law, which is named for a murder victim in California, where voters approved the law in 2008.