Prop. 9 is unjust
Amid a bumper crop of misguided propositions on Tuesday’s ballot, Proposition 9 has inspired only minimal outrage. That’s the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008, and who, after all, wants to speak up for criminals?
But I take this one personally because I am a family member of a murder victim. My brother was ruthlessly shot and killed eight years ago. I’m asking you to refuse to amend the state Constitution to grant me these “victims’ rights.”
Proposition 9 applies to all criminals but is aimed very clearly at murderers -- it’s called Marsy’s Law, after a young woman murdered 25 years ago. It would restrict offenders’ rights from arrest to imprisonment in myriad ways. For example, it reduces the number of parole hearings inmates are entitled to and does away with state-provided lawyers for parole violators. What disturbs me most, however, is that prosecutors would be required to consider the opinions of victims’ relatives on charges, sentencing and parole. The measure also would remove all limits on the number of family members who could speak at sentencing and parole hearings.
Opponents of Proposition 9 call it unnecessary (California has a victims’ bill of rights, but it’s not in the Constitution), expensive to enforce and vulnerable to challenges. They should be more direct: It is unjust.
Victims’ rights laws, in general, smell of revenge, which the legal system should not condone. And I can affirm that when we ask families to be involved in decisions on punishment, we legalize revenge.
I should explain that I was spared the agony of confronting my brother’s killer in court. She killed herself. But I know the pain of losing someone to violence. I have to live with the knowledge that a person I cherished was shot seven times, and that he lived long enough to know it. I have seen my nephew lose his father and my parents lose a son.
I assure you that I am not arguing against this measure in the spirit of forgiveness. Quite the opposite. I harbor no forgiveness for my brother’s killer. Not a shred. I do not expect that to change. Ever.
Which is exactly the problem. If no punishment can bring back the person I loved, then no punishment could ever be enough. I do not care about motive, mental state, penance or rehabilitation when it comes to my brother’s killer -- things the legal system rightly takes into account. So if you want justice and fairness in the process, don’t ask me or the rest of my family to weigh in. Punishment for murder should not depend on how angry and bereft survivors are, or how beloved the victim was. It should not be proportional to the size of the victim’s family, or to how many family members are willing to go to court or a parole hearing, or to how long they are willing to keep going to hearings.
There is no more unjust act than to take the life of an innocent person, and the families of murder victims live with this monumental violation every day. The truly adequate recompense is to see justice served -- real justice. We don’t honor the people we lost by committing injustice in their names.
I am not speaking up for murderers. I am speaking up for me, and for families of murder victims. I am speaking up for my brother, David, who died on Nov. 4, 2000. On this Nov. 4, I hope the voters will choose not to dishonor his memory.
Jenny Price is a freelance writer and a research scholar at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women.