Malloy picks a peculiar enforcer for an imaginary 'right'

How typical that the opposition to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's nominee to become state government's victim advocate was based on what may have been his greatest qualification.

That is, the nominee, Garvin Ambrose, an assistant prosecutor and legislative liaison for the state's attorney's office in Cook County, Illinois, represented that office before the Illinois legislature in opposing a "victims' rights" amendment to the Illinois Constitution.

Ambrose was approved last week by the General Assembly's Legislative Nominations Committee, but four members of the Republican minority voted against him in part because of the amendment issue.

A "victims' rights"amendment was added to Connecticut' Constitution in 1996 but it was just phony posturing.

The amendment leaves "victim" to be defined by the legislature, perhaps because in the context of criminal justice the term is a misnomer to begin with. For in court nobody is a victim until a judgment is rendered; there are not victims but accusers. To designate a victim prior to a judgment is prejudicial and unconstitutional.

Then the amendment bestows certain rights on "victims" that everyone enjoys or are marginal or simply unenforceable:

• "The right to be treated with fairness and respect throughout the criminal justice process." Who doesn't have that right?

• "The right to timely disposition of the case following arrest of the accused, provided that no right of the accused is abridged." But "timely" isn't defined and there is no mechanism to hasten a case.

• "The right to be reasonably protected from the accused throughout the criminal justice process." But judges already were ordering defendants to stay away from their accusers pending trial.

• "The right to notification of court proceedings."

• The right to object in court to a plea bargain and to make a statement at sentencing. This alone in the amendment means something but could have been established by ordinary statute.

• "The right to restitution which shall be enforceable in the same manner as any other cause of action or as otherwise provided by law" - that is, the right already enjoyed by all.

• "The right to information about the arrest, conviction, sentence, imprisonment, and release of the accused" - that is, the right already enjoyed by all under freedom-of-information law.

The amendment concludes with a clinker: Nothing in it "shall be construed as creating a basis for vacating a conviction or ground for appellate relief in any criminal case." That is, nothing in the amendment really counts.

If state government ever really wanted to help crime victims it could appropriate for more judges, prosecutors, and public defenders so courts would be prepared to bring defendants to trial with less discounting of sentences through plea bargaining.

State government could provide for more serious sentences by making more room in prisons, as by decriminalizing and medicalizing the drug problem so that prisons held only perpetrators of crime with victims. But that would cost money.

Pandering to crime victims with that trivial constitutional amendment cost nothing - except the constitution's humiliation.

Gov. Malloy nominated Ambrose to get rid of state Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz, an appointee of the previous administration who criticized the Malloy administration's program of early release for prisoners thought to have undergone extra rehabilitation. While it may be too early to evaluate the program against the prison system's longstanding recidivism rate of around 70 percent, whatever the program's results are, Ambrose may know better than to criticize it if he wants to qualify for a state pension.

Maybe the best that can be hoped about Ambrose is that he won't be quite the enemy of freedom of information that Cruz was when she advocated closing court records and proceedings to suit accusers. The serious part of Connecticut's Constitution requires open courts and so does justice.

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