By Lorraine Haw
I have seen the criminal legal system from every angle imaginable.
My brother was 25 years old when he was murdered. After his murder, I wanted the man who killed my brother to die.
My 43-year-old son is serving a life sentence. He’s been incarcerated since he was 18.
And in the 1980s, I became addicted to drugs, a disorder that led me to commit crimes to support my habit. I served my time, and, since then, I have lived my life with purpose as an advocate for ending mass incarceration.
I know how this system works. I know how dehumanizing it is and how it fails people, both those who have been victims and those who have committed crimes.
Today, I was at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, along with the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, to urge the court to invalidate the Marsy’s Law ballot question. Marsy’s Law makes more than a dozen changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution, and supporters say that they think people who have been victims of crime should have rights equal to the accused.
You may think that I, as the family member of a murder victim, would share their feelings. And I am, in fact, a believer in supporting crime victims.
But I do not believe that the rights of crime victims should come at the expense of the rights of those who have been accused of crimes. Supporters of Marsy’s Law do not understand what a person is facing when they’ve been charged with a crime. They are facing the full power of the government, which wants to take their liberty and put them in a cage.
Because of the rights it grants to crime victims before a person has been convicted, Marsy’s Law unfairly assumes that the person who has been charged is guilty. That’s not how our system works. A person is considered innocent until the state proves that they are guilty.
Marsy’s Law will make it harder for people to appeal their cases or to get released on parole. We incarcerate too many people in this state for too many crimes. We need holistic solutions, decriminalization, and decarceration.
The thing is, there are things in Marsy’s Law that I support. I believe in providing notification to victims of proceedings and doing more for victims’ safety. We can make choices to provide more support to people who have been victims of crime, through law and how we choose to spend public dollars.
But I and every other voter in 2019 didn’t have the chance to vote on the parts of Marsy’s Law that we liked. Besides being an advocate for criminal legal reform, I’m also a big believer in the right to vote. The state legislature disenfranchised me and every other voter by failing to give us the chance to vote on each issue in Marsy’s Law as separate questions. Instead, they gave us an up-or-down, all-or-nothing choice. That’s not how this is supposed to be done.
My journey through the criminal legal system has been long and sometimes painful. But I came out the other side a changed person. Remember how I wanted my brother’s killer dead? He didn’t get a death sentence, but he was sentenced to life-without-parole, which is a walking death sentence. I no longer want him dead. In fact, I advocate for an end to death-by-incarceration sentences for him and the thousands of others serving that term in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Keeping him in prison for the rest of his life won’t bring back my brother.
I have just one vote, and I want it to go toward justice, not toward vengeance. I want to be able to vote for real victims’ rights – but not to have to vote against the accused. It hurts to lose someone. We have lost too many of our loved ones already, to violence, to jail. We need to find another way.
Marsy’s Law is not the way.
Lorraine "Ms. Dee Dee" Haw and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania are plaintiffs challenging the 2019 Marsy's Law ballot question, represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm Dechert LLP. To learn more about this case, visit aclupa.org/ML-lawsuit.