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For years, the Legislature has worked together in a bipartisan way to help protect survivors of crime. Our state law protecting survivors’ rights is sound. Chapter 915—while not perfect—is close to comprehensive. In addition to statutory protections, more than thirty states have some form of constitutional protection for crime victims.

Naturally, some have asked why we need to constitutionalize victims’ rights in Iowa. The simplest answer is this: when a defendant’s constitutional rights conflict with a statutory victim protection, the defendant’s constitutional right will always prevail. Accordingly, the Iowa Senate took the first step this week of constitutionalizing victims’ rights. The amendment, SJR 2005, provides that: “The rights of a victim of crime, as provided by law, shall not be infringed.”

To be very clear, this is NOT about reducing defendant’s rights. It is about elevating victims’ rights. In our modern system of justice, when the state prosecutes an individual alleged to have committed a criminal act, the state brings its full might, power, and resources to meet a high burden of proof.  Accordingly, our federal and state constitutions—and the many cases on criminal law and procedure interpreting the constitution and laws—provide a robust set of rights to protect the defendant’s due process rights.

While crime may be prosecuted by the government, crime is generally committed against an individual or individuals—victims.  As I said before, this is not a measure to reduce robust constitutional and statutory protections for defendants. Rather, it is an amendment to elevate the rights of crime victims—survivors—to ensure their rights receive greater weight on review and work to provide a mechanism for survivors to protect their rights from encroachment, and, when necessary, to enforce their rights.

The language in SJR 2005 allows us to constitutionally protect victims’ rights which “shall not be infringed”, while not being overly prescriptive in nature.  This gives the legislature the flexibility to act quickly to add, limit, or fix deficiencies in Chapter 915 “as provided by law,” while elevating those rights to a higher standard of protection before a court.

There has been much discussion around the country on criminal justice reform.  But the fact is, for every offender, there is a victim or a survivor.  And as we consider taking steps to make Iowa a more favorable place for ex-offenders to re-enter society, it is particularly important to continue to do all we can to make Iowa the best state in America for survivors of crime. I want to ensure the rights of crime victims are protected, enforced, and that the impact of crime on survivors, their families, their lives, and their communities is never forgotten or marginalized.

Author: Zach Whiting