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Victims deserve rights -- yes on Prop. 9

It shouldn't be a surprise to those of us who have been victims, lost loved ones through violent crime or advocated on behalf of crime victims that The Times opposes Proposition 9, also known as "Marsy's Law: The Crime Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008." Even the sub-headline -- "Prop. 9 constitutionally upends the criminal justice system by involving victims' families in prosecutions" -- equates victims' voices in the criminal justice process with pandemonium.

The Times shows an almost callous indifference toward crime victims, stating that their participation in a case as witnesses or observers in the courtroom to watch the proceedings -- or even speak at parole hearings -- is somehow inappropriate. Also disturbing is the implication that a victim's desire to advocate for justice for a loved one is based solely on retribution and vendettas, as if judges and juries weren't ultimately the ones who make the decisions.

The average voter will see past The Times' rhetoric and support Proposition 9 for several reasons.

California crime victims deserve the same constitutional rights currently provided only to those accused or convicted of a crime. Victims' rights are only statutory, which means, from a legal and practical perspective, that their rights do not have priority.

California crime victims deserve basic rights, including the right to information and notification of critical proceedings related to the crime and parole hearings as well as the right to be heard. Proposition 9 would require that victims' and their families' safety be considered by judges making bail decisions, and that crime victims be notified if their offenders are released. It would also guarantee victims the constitutional right to prevent the release of their personal confidential information or records to criminal defendants.

Proposition 9 also calls for a more effective California parole system that provides commissioners with the flexibility to increase the number of years between hearings for those who have already earned a "life sentence," thereby streamlining the parole system and saving taxpayers' money.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the parole system's misuse is by Charles Manson followers Bruce Davis and Leslie Van Houten, both of whom were convicted of multiple brutal murders. Since their convictions, they have had a combined 38 parole hearings in 30 years. For each one of those 38 occasions, the victims' families had to relive the painful crimes and pay their own expenses to attend the hearings. Taxpayers have had to absorb the costs of each and every one of those hearings.

The simple act of increasing the number of years between parole hearings for some of California's worst offenders would alleviate an already overburdened system, ease the pain and suffering endured by victims and their families and save taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

Finally, Proposition 9 would prevent politicians from releasing dangerous inmates to alleviate prison overcrowding and provide resources to keep Californians safe. This measure would require the state to fund proper inmate imprisonment for the full terms of their sentences, except for statutorily authorized credits that reduce those sentences. Proposition 9 would not in any way limit the ability of government or public safety officials to enact early release programs that are grounded in improving public safety.

While we all hope that others will never face the terrible crimes and tragedies that inspired this proposition, we know that ultimately these improvements to our justice system would make everyone in California a little safer.

LaWanda Hawkins, chief executive of Southern California-based Justice for Murdered Children, became an advocate for crime victims after the murder of her only child, Reggie, in 1995.

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