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Victims advocate groups are the latest among state organizations to line up in opposition to a victim’s rights constitutional measure being bankrolled by an out-of-state businessman.

A few dozen activists along with state’s attorneys and defense lawyers groups gathered Thursday at the Radisson hotel in Bismarck to speak out on the Marsy’s Law for North Dakota measure. Those gathered called it a broad unfunded mandate that could divert resources away from existing programs and services to victims.

The Marsy’s Law measure would change the state constitution to place victims’ rights on the same level as the accused, rather than just in statute.

North Dakota Victim Assistance Association President Darla Juma said voters shouldn’t accept a measure pushed by a California businessman but instead work with the Legislature to develop solutions.

Juma said Marsy’s Law could clog the court system with minor offenses.

“Marsy’s Law puts a $5 check case on the same legal footing as a rape or murder case,” Juma said.

Juma said when the measure was first announced in December she thought it sounded like a good idea but she changed her mind after reviewing the measure further and discussing it with supporters.

“Marsy’s Law conflicts with some of our current victim rights laws that are working very well and will require crime victims to testify in court more often,” Juma said.

Janelle Moos, executive director of the Council on Abused Women's Services North Dakota, agreed. She said the state already has a set of 18 rights for victims and witnesses in statute, including the right to be notified of the status of an investigation and be informed of services available.

“Victims have multifaceted needs, and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work,” Moos said of Marsy’s Law.

Moos said the measure does create an opportunity to begin a discussion on potential legislative improvements to state programs for the next session.

Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women's Network, echoed much of Juma and Moos’ statements.

“Amending the constitution is a serious matter,” Stromme said. “This is especially true when an amendment deals with such critical issues as violent crime justice for our people.”

Kathleen Wrigley, chairwoman of Marsy’s Law for North Dakota, called out opponents from the various groups in a statement prior to Thursday’s press conference.

“Today, a few prosecutors and victims’ advocates are showing their callous disregard for equal rights for crime victims in North Dakota. Instead, these groups are endorsing the complacency of the status quo where crime victims in North Dakota are outright ignored by the criminal justice system making them to feel victimized all over again,” Wrigley said. “These prosecutors and ‘victim advocates’ are telling voters today that offenders’ rights are more important than those they victimize.”

The Marsy’s Law for North Dakota measure contains provisions allowing for notification of hearings in the judicial process and notification if the accused person escapes custody. It also calls for taking victims and their family’s welfare into consideration when setting bail for the criminals.

Henry Nicholas, a California businessman and main proponent of Marsy’s Law, has provided more than $1 million for pushing the measure in North Dakota.

Nicholas’ efforts to pass Marsy’s Law came following the death of Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in California in 1983. So far, the law has passed in California and Illinois.

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(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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