September 26, 2008
Add Proposition 9 to the terrible troika that includes propositions 5 and 6 discussed above. It in part duplicates a "victims' bill of rights" measure that Californians adopted at the ballot box 26 years ago, but it would move many of its provisions from the statute books into the state Constitution. In addition, new rights would be recognized for family members of crime victims, most often in parole hearings, where families would be able to appoint someone to speak for them. The frequency of hearings would be reduced.
The measure contains some good ways to make life more bearable for the loved ones of crime victims. For example, it requires police officers who respond to crime scenes to give cards to grieving family members that clue them in on what to do -- where to seek help, what happens next in the criminal justice process, what rights they have in court. The problem is that this provision, as well as several less beneficial ones in Proposition 9, would be engraved in the state Constitution, subject to change only by a three-quarters vote of the Legislature or another ballot measure. That makes it extraordinarily difficult to correct errors or update the law.
Officers in Orange County already pass out cards to victims' families, and a better approach would be for lawmakers to insist that police across the state do the same.
Other provisions may appear similarly humane but actually upend the criminal justice system in a naive attempt to "even the playing field" between defendants and victims' families. The American legal system intentionally and properly distances families from prosecutions; the goal is evenhanded justice. The level of punishment a criminal receives should not depend on how persistent a particular family is in pleading for punishment or blocking parole. Civilized justice rejects vendetta and instead places retribution in the hands of the entire society. It may seem depersonalizing, but that's a goal, not a defect, of our system.
If the concern is protection of families from further victimization, as proponents claim, that goal can be met without granting families a new and inappropriate role in prosecutions. The Times urges a no vote on Proposition 9.
For information on all the November ballot races, as well as previous Times endorsements, log on to the Opinion section's Vote-o-rama at latimes.com/news/opinion/elections.
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