Senate committee considers victims’ rights amendment

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,595 views 

The Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee heard presentations Thursday (March 30) on a “Victim’s Bill of Rights” proposed constitutional amendment that is part of Gov. Sarah Sanders’ Safer, Stronger Arkansas Legislative Package. It also heard presentations on six other proposed amendments.

Chairman Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, said afterwards that committee members will gauge support among other legislators and then vote the first part of next week on which amendment might advance to the full Senate.

Johnson said the informal plan is for senators to choose only one proposed amendment. In recent years, the Senate or House typically have selected one amendment to refer to voters while the other chamber has selected two, and then the next session those numbers were reversed.

But Johnson indicated lawmakers this year lack an appetite for referring amendments to the ballot after voters in 2022 rejected all three proposed amendments referred by legislators, and after legislators in the most recent two elections unsuccessfully referred amendments designed to make it harder to amend the Constitution.

“We have had those that requested the citizens to be able to make it harder to amend. It’s not unreasonable for us to respect that process and not amend also,” he said.

Senate Joint Resolution 10 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, would add a Victim’s Bill of Rights to the Arkansas Constitution, defining a victim as a person “against whom a violent or sexual criminal offense is committed,” or who would be a killed or incapacitated individual’s spouse, parent, child or other lawful representative.

Listed would be victims’ rights to:

– Be treated with fairness, respect and dignity and to be free from intimidation, harassment or abuse throughout the criminal justice process;
– Be informed upon request when the accused or convicted is released from custody or has escaped;
– Be present and informed of criminal proceedings where the defendant has a right to be present;
– Be heard after charges have been filed at proceedings involving a post-arrest release decision, negotiated plea, disposition or sentencing;
– Refuse an interview, deposition, or release of documents not found in the prosecutor’s or the court’s file when requested by the defendant;
– Refuse the release of the victim’s home address;
– Confer with the prosecution any time after the crime has been charged and be informed of the final disposition;
– Read pre-sentence reports when they are available to the defendant;
– Receive restitution payment prior to the payment of court fines, costs and fees from the person convicted of the crime;
– Be heard at any proceeding when any post-conviction release from confinement is being considered;
– A speedy trial and, following sentencing, a prompt and final conclusion to the case;
– Have all rules that govern procedures and admissibility of evidence protect victims’ rights; and
– Be informed of their constitutional rights.

Wallace said such bills of rights exist in 19 states and said criminals too often use the legal system against the victim.

But Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, an attorney, questioned if a constitutional amendment is necessary, while Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, also an attorney, said most of the proposed amendment’s provisions could be contained in code.

A victims’ right law was passed in Arkansas in 1997 which provides many of the protections outlined in the amendment, but Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, noted that criminals’ rights are contained in the Constitution.

Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said he was unsure how much of the amendment’s provisions could conflict with the rights of the accused.

Senators heard presentations regarding six other proposed amendments.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, would create an Arkansas Apportionment Commission to redraw state legislative lines after each census, subject to the approval of the the Board of Apportionment, which consists of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Each of those three officials would appoint three members to the commission.

Senate Joint Resolution 15 by King would change the current representation on the Arkansas Highway Commission. Instead of the current breakdown of one member from each congressional district and one at-large, it would be composed of five members, each from one of five groups of similar counties. King said the current arrangement over-represents one of the congressional districts, which has two members.

Senate Joint Resolution 2 by Payton would provide for recalls of elected officials if 25% of the voters in the last gubernatorial election in their represented area sign a petition. For statewide offices, in addition to the 25% requirement, at least 10% of the number of statewide signatures would have to come from at least 50 counties.

Senate Joint Resolution 4 by Tucker would create a system of open primaries where all candidates would be on the primary ballot and the top two finishers, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. Tucker said such a system is needed because most districts are not competitive in the general election but rather in the primaries, where candidates must appeal to the party’s fringe and not the middle of the electorate.

Senate Joint Resolution 5 by Tucker would allow counties, cities, towns or other municipal corporations to fund and administer a water system customer assistance program. Tucker said such programs are available at the federal level for electricity, but the state Constitution forbids water assistance programs in Arkansas.

Senate Joint Resolution 6 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would eliminate the state’s sovereign immunity against being sued in its own courts. The amendment states that Arkansas can be made a defendant in its own courts if accused of violating the United States or Arkansas Constitutions or if authorized by Arkansas law.