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Editorial: ‘Victims’ rights’ bill must be fair to all

Updated: February 21, 2013 6:43AM

Laws balancing the rights of the state versus the rights of defendants have evolved over centuries. It’s not surprising, therefore, that trying to carve out new space for victims’ rights is complicated. But we can’t risk changes that would cut guilty people loose or put innocent ones behind bars.

Once again, legislation providing for a victim’s rights amendment to the Illinois Constitution has been introduced in the General Assembly. Similar bills have failed in recent sessions, including one last year that passed both houses before prosecutors around the state raised such significant objections that the legislation was scuttled. This year’s version also includes problematic provisions. It should be thoroughly reworked before it’s brought to a vote.

Laws protecting “victims’ rights” sound appealing in theory, but they more accurately would be described as “complainants’ rights.” Under the law, a person is innocent until proved guilty, which means it’s not legally certain who the victim is until a trial is over. Moreover, in a county such as Cook where many cases involve gang crimes, this month’s defendant could be next month’s victim. A fear of being manipulated by gang members citing their victim rights was one of the reasons prosecutors objected so strenuously last time around.

Among the worrisome provisions in the new bill is a right for victims to have unrestricted access to sentencing reports, which often contain sensitive information. It’s easy to see how that would complicate authorities’ lives in gang cases.

Another provision would grant victims the right to refuse to provide evidence they don’t want coming into court. Sometimes, information that “victims” didn’t want known has proved crucial in establishing someone else’s innocence. That path to finding the truth must remain open.

Prosecutors are working on their own language for a victims’ rights bill. Before moving forward, the Legislature should see what they and others with a stake in fair outcomes have to say.

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