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Marsy's Law Presents Challenges For Lawmakers

marsy's law.org

Floridians voted to put protections for crime victims in the state constitution, but lawmakers and officials are grappling with how to put the measure into practice.

Public defenders, state attorneys, police chiefs, sheriffs and the Florida Department of Corrections all have the same message: Marsy’s Law is incredibly vague.

At a panel hosted by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, stakeholders asked lawmakers to clarify.

Floridians gave the green light to the victims’ rights proposal in November as part of Amendment 6, but putting the law into effect has proved challenging. 

“A lot of the terms in this amendment are general, they’re not well defined and they’re very broad," said Stacy Scott, an Alachua County public defender. "And when taken to their extreme, it could almost be paralyzing to our criminal justice system.”

The amendment requires victims to be notified of updates in their cases throughout the criminal justice process.

The problem: it is unclear which agency is in charge of that as the case moves from the local law enforcement, to prosecutors, to the state corrections system, and the added staffing, postage and technology costs haven’t been addressed by the legislature.

The amendment could also bog down the court system.

“There’s a lot that happens in a relatively quick fashion," said Duval County Circuit Judge Mark Mahon. "I was doing rough math and I think in Jacksonville, in Duval County, we probably handle 10,000 misdemeanors a year. And a lot of those are handled at first appearance. In other words, a defendant is arrested on Day 1, and on Day 2 he’s in front of a judge and resolving the case."

"And so, there might be some processes that are added that slow that down. That may have an impact on the county in terms of how long those people stay in custody and those types of things.”

Gainesville Republican Senator Keith Perry sums up the challenges Marsy’s Law presents: balancing the rights of victims and the accused.

"I know, Mr. Hawkes, you didn’t mean it despairingly but you said ‘there’s one person that’s there voluntarily and the other one is not,’ " Perry said in response to Marsy's Law for Florida Lobbyist Paul Hawkes. "But the other one’s not been proven guilty and certainly has those rights – those constitutional rights – as a defendant that we need to make sure we take into account.” 

Lawmakers are considering an implementation bill that would narrow and define the scope of the amendment. 

Shawn Mulcahy is a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU. He graduated from Florida State University in 2019 with majors in public relations and political science. He was previously an intern at WFSU, and worked as an Account Coordinator at RB Oppenheim Associates.