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Tue, Aug. 20

This measure won't help crime victims' cause

Americans cherish and revere the Constitution. But often their attitude brings to mind the Broadway show: "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."

The only thing many of them like more than the Constitution is the opportunity to fix its grievous flaws. The latest suggestion for improvement stems from a belief that it shortchanges the needs of crime victims.

The entire criminal justice system, of course, could be seen as a giant apparatus set up to vindicate the interests of crime victims. Every year in the United States, we arrest more than 13 million suspects and keep more than 1.4 million offenders in prison. All those police, prosecutors, judges, parole officers and prison guards are there mainly to detect, investigate, prosecute and punish criminals for what they do to their victims.

But critics say the system often abuses the people it's supposed to protect. And they insist that the only way to assure fairness to victims is to enshrine their rights in the Constitution. President Bush has endorsed the amendment. Sen. John Kerry has not.

Americans are often prone to seeing a problem and concluding, "There oughta be a law." In this instance, though, we already have a multitude of laws. Every state has enacted legislation to protect victims' rights, and at least 33 have installed such provisions in their state constitutions.

But Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), co-sponsor of the amendment, says these efforts have been a bust. He says one study found that even in states with strong measures in effect, officials failed to notify 44 percent of victims about the sentencing hearing, and didn't notify nearly half about plea negotiations.

Why don't existing laws do the job? Because, says Kyl, "criminal defendants have a plethora of rights that are protected by the Constitution that are applied to exclude victims' rights." The only way to correct the imbalance is to give victims' rights equal status.

But where are the constitutional provisions that work against victims? Defendants do have a right to a speedy public trial by jury, to a lawyer, to avoid self-incrimination and so on. But nothing in the Constitution prevents authorities from informing victims of proceedings, from letting them speak during trials, sentencing and parole hearings, from alerting them when an assailant is due for release or from requiring criminals to pay restitution. Those are the victims' rights specified in the constitutional amendment, all of which it's possible to safeguard without the drastic step of altering the nation's charter.

Amending the Constitution won't make the bureaucracies less fallible. The obvious way to do that is to make them pay for their mistakes by letting victims collect damages when officials ignore their rights. But this proposal explicitly forbids that remedy. It's all bark and no bite.

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