Miami's Top Prosecutor Is Pushing the Terrible Florida "Victims' Rights" Amendment

The United States jails more of its citizens than any nation on Earth. Florida's incarceration rate is higher than any country's. So it would seem logical to ratchet down the War on Drugs, demilitarize local police departments, and persuade local cops to arrest fewer people.

Instead, many Florida prosecutors have announced support for a state-level version of something called "Marsy's Law," which is on the November 6 ballot. If enacted, Amendment 6 would allow crime victims to demand harsher sentences for people who've allegedly wronged them.

One supporter is Democratic Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who tries to position herself as a progressive. "Amendment 6 is an opportunity for every Floridian to stand up," Rundle states in a 30-second spot, "to say that victims have rights and that they should be protected, they should be in our constitution."

But as New Yorker writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore chronicled earlier this year, the victims' rights movement represents a bizarre partnership between the less progressive corners of #MeToo and hard-right conservatives who hope to put more Americans in prison. They generally believe state and federal laws give accused criminals too many legal protections and ignore the victims.

It appears that a single, wealthy donor has been bankrolling much of the effort. Henry Nicholas, a California tech entrepreneur, became a billionaire after founding the company Broadcom — and, according to NPR, is now using a chunk of his earnings to push states and the federal government to pass Marsy's Law, named for his sister, Marsalee "Marsy" Nicholas, who was murdered in 1983. Among the law's tenets: Victims have the right to be notified when a perpetrator is to appear in court or is up for parole; they can speak at an accused person's trial; and they can ignore interview requests from alleged criminals. Six states have passed Marsy's Law-style amendments. Six other states are set to vote on similar provisions this month. Florida is one of them.

Many justice-reform groups say Marsy's Law-style amendments have gummed up the justice system and ensured that innocent defendants spend added time behind bars.

Although hurt, grieving victims are often excluded from trials to ensure proceedings are fair, the law would give them the right to speak. The American Civil Liberties Union and multiple defense-lawyer advocacy groups worry this could cloud jurors' minds and push them to either needlessly convict people or award overly harsh sentences.

But there are even more reasons to oppose Marsy's Law. For one, it would allow victims to refuse some interview or document requests from alleged perpetrators. This could prevent the wrongly accused from obtaining evidence that might free them. According to the Marshall Project, defense lawyers in Marsy's Law states have had trouble obtaining basic information about their cases, such as the location of crimes.

Marsy's Law “sounded good, but it didn’t end up being what was advertised,” Mark Mickelson, the speaker of the South Dakota House of Representatives, told the Marshall Project last May.

Most obvious, jail populations have swollen because court officials need to notify victims before releasing inmates. That step needlessly costs taxpayers money.

Zooming out, it's unclear what problem the law actually solves. Justice-reform groups almost uniformly agree the present American justice system is already too harsh on criminals. Per the Huffington Post, some crime victims say it would be more helpful to fund victims' services, such as mental-health-counseling programs, rather than make the justice system harsher. Even the Libertarian Party of Florida opposes the measure.

Though some protections in the measure might make a bit of sense (giving victims the right to be free from harassment, for example), many sectors in the so-called crime victim’s “Bill of Rights” come across as draconian. For example, it gives victims the right to be intimately involved in sentencing and bail decisions and even lets them weigh in on clemency procedures that might occur decades down the line. The ballot language makes no distinction between victims of violent and nonviolent crimes, so under the law, you’d be free to ask the court to harshly punish someone who stole your wallet. The bill fundamentally changes the way states think about prosecution; criminal cases would no longer mete out punishment (and rehabilitation) on behalf of the collective population, but instead enact retribution for individuals.

Some of Rundle's statements have been downright misleading: For one, the Florida Constitution already protects victims' rights. In fact, according to WLRN's Danny Rivero, Florida was the first state to enact victims' rights protections:

Moreover, Amendment 6 is more than just Marsy's Law. Thanks to the actions of the state Constitution Revision Commission, a body of people appointed by Gov. Rick Scott and the mostly right-wing Florida Legislature, the measure is bundled with two other proposals, which would change regulations for judicial rulings and raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from age 70 to 75.

Bizarrely, Nicholas has been able to recruit celebrity Kelsey Grammer (Frasier!) to cut ads across the country for Marsy's Law. His involvement has created a surreal scenario in which the SunSentinel has had to publish op-eds criticizing the TV psychiatrist from Cheers.

But Rundle's involvement is perhaps the most upsetting fact in this ordeal. Miami-Dade's state attorney is often credited for pushing the county to create mental-health and drug-diversion courts that help keep people out of prison. In supporting Amendment 6, she's now pushing a bill that seemingly would do the opposite.

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