By Jennifer Boyter, IACP Legislative Analyst
On April 22, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill (S. 2329) to confer specific rights on victims of federal crimes. The bill represents a compromise between supporters and opponents of another bill (S.J. Res. 1) that would amend the Constitution to guarantee victims' rights.
Supporters of the amendment, including sponsors Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), were not confident that they had the 67 votes needed for approval. (Proposed constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of approval by each chamber.) As a result, they decided on a legislative approach, although they had argued for many years that nothing short of a constitutional amendment would guarantee the rights of victims.
Critics of the proposed amendment had argued that Congress should first try to enact victims' rights protections statutorily instead of through a constitutional amendment. They argued that even a well-worded constitutional amendment could have unintended consequences. They also noted that it would take another amendment to correct any problems.
The bill passed by the Senate is essentially a statutory version of the amendment. It would require that crime victims or their representatives receive advance notification of judicial proceedings and parole hearings. The bill would also give victims or their representatives the right to be heard at public release, plea sentencing, and other proceedings and would require judicial officials to consider victims' safety when deciding the fate of defendants.
Although the amendment would have applied to victims of violent crimes in both federal and state courts, the bill would apply to all crime victims in federal courts.
The bill also authorizes more than $16 million in fiscal 2005 and $26.5 million each subsequent year through 2009 to improve victim notification, encourage states to protect victims' rights, and support the National Crime Victim Law Institute.
Supporters of the constitutional amendment argue that if the statute proves to be unsuccessful, it will prove that a constitutional amendment is indeed needed.
The bill now moves to the House, where leaders have agreed to the compromise position. President Bush is also expected to sign the measure when it reaches his desk.
In October 2002, the IACP Executive Committee formally approved the association's support for the proposed constitutional amendment. Before endorsing the proposed amendment, the Executive Committee carefully considered the proposed amendment and its potential impact on law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
The IACP is currently reviewing the Senate-passed bill to determine if its provisions meet the association's goal of protecting the rights of victims without impeding the rights of the accused or hindering the ability of law enforcement or prosecutors to effectively apprehend or convict criminals.
Congress Passes Another
Extension of Transportation Bill
Both the House and Senate have approved a two-month extension (H.R. 4219) for highway and transit programs. The previous extension was set to expire on April 30. The last highway bill, known as TEA-21, expired September 30, 2003, and Congress has since passed three extensions.
Neither the House nor the Senate has appointed conferees to work on reconciling the two significantly different transportation reauthorization bills. Senate Democrats have refused to appoint conferees in an attempt to be included in preconference discussions on the bill's funding level. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) has said that he will not appoint House conferees until there is a consensus among the White House, the House, and Senate on a funding level.
The biggest problem for conferees will be reconciling the different funding levels. The Senate bill authorizes $318 billion, while the House bill would authorize $284 billion. Both bills have drawn a veto threat from President Bush, who has said he will veto any bill larger than $256 billion, the cost of his proposal.
The conference committee will face fights between fiscal conservatives, who support the administration's veto threats, and members in both parties who say more spending is necessary to meet the nation's transportation needs and give a boost to the economy.
Not only are funding levels different in the two bills; there are also significant differences in various programs and in how funds would be allocated. In general, the House bill was far more specific in designating spending, including spelling out funding for more than 3,000 highway and transit projects.
Judiciary Committee Approves
Bill to Make Terrorism Hoaxes Illegal
On May 12, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill (HB 1678) to make it a federal crime to simulate biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical weapons. Violators would be subject to up to five years in prison. It is not currently a violation of federal law to expose someone to a harmless powdery substance and depict it as a toxic biological agent if no specific threats are made at the same time.
In addition, the bill would require convicted defendants to reimburse any costs of responding to or investigating a hoax. It would also make those who perpetrate terrorism hoaxes liable in civil lawsuits that seek to recover costs. The bill would also make it a crime to try to deceive someone into believing that a member of the military has been killed or captured.