I’ve seen too many editorials in Montana newspapers claiming Montana doesn’t need a Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, and encouraging the Montana Supreme Court to eliminate the Constitutional rights that Montana voters enacted by a two-to-one margin last November. I have to ask, under what rock have these editors been living?
My perspective is from the front lines. Every day I hear from crime victims who need help navigating our convoluted criminal justice system. People who have been victimized by the most heinous crimes and who then struggle to obtain even basic information about their case from the state.
Victims who go to bed one day expecting their perpetrator to be locked up, only to wake up the next morning stunned to learn that a prosecutor cut a plea deal behind their back, setting that criminal free. Victims who aren’t notified of important hearings or developments in their case, and in the worst examples are never notified that their perpetrator has been released.
These are the sorts of challenges my family faced when my 8-year-old brother, Ryan, was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a repeat sex offender. Our family was in shock, in a state of unimaginable grief, and to that trauma was added intense frustration by the process that denied us information time and again—simple things like the location of my brother’s body.
Things have improved for crime victims in Montana in the 30 years since my brother’s murder—but not nearly to the extent to where we’re serving crime victims with the dignity and respect they deserve. By enacting a Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, Montana took a huge step forward to improving the process for victims.
In my nearly 20 years as a law enforcement officer, and dozens more working full time as a victim advocate, I’ve seen it all. I know how helpless, vulnerable, and terrified victims can feel. And I know they can be let down by the criminal justice process they expected to be their savior.
I also know that most of the time the system works well. Our law enforcement professionals work harder than anyone else you know, and their hearts reach out to the victims they work with every day.
But the criminal justice system doesn’t work the way it should every time. In a large and complex system, things inevitably go amiss. That’s why it’s critical to have a Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights in our constitution—to give victims a remedy for the mistakes and oversights that we know are happening.
Without a Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, there is no recourse for those victims—that’s the problem that Marsy’s Law, CI-116, was enacted by voters to solve.
For the first time in our state’s history, crime victims will have Constitutional protections that allow them equal standing in the eyes of the court, that give them recourse when their rights are violated, and that will give them a real voice in the process.
It’s troubling to see some in the media trivialize the challenges faced by crime victims, and scoff at the notion that victims are entitled to the same level of rights as defendants. They would take us back to the days when victims were treated as little more than evidence in a case.
Montana was right to join the 34 other states that have enacted Constitutional protections for crime victims since 1986. Those who pretend the challenges for crime victims don’t exist need to come out and see the light. These crime victims—who are struggling to heal from unthinkable tragedies—deserve much better than the treatment they continue to endure in Montana.
Derek VanLuchene is the founder of Ryan United, a non-profit serving crime victims and their families. He lives in Helena.