WASHINGTON -- President Clinton endorsed amending the Constitution to protect the rights of crime victims, saying they should have as many rights as accused criminals in the courts.
"We want to level the playing field," the president said yesterday before an audience of crime victims during a sweltering Rose Garden ceremony.
"This is not about depriving people accused of crimes of their legitimate rights, including the presumption of innocence. This is about simple fairness."
With 43 million crime victims a year, Clinton's embrace of such a constitutional amendment is part of an election-year strategy to back tough-on-crime positions -- a traditionally Republican posture.
"If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, Bob Dole is flattered," said Christina Martin, a Dole spokeswoman.
"Bill Clinton's belated support of this very important amendment is but the latest episode in his ongoing game of follow the leader."
Clinton directed Attorney General Janet Reno to guarantee maximum participation by victims in the federal system.
He asked her to review existing laws to possibly make further changes, such as making sure victims who attend or testify at trials aren't penalized when they have to take time off from their jobs.
Clinton also said he wants to launch a computerized system so victims get information about new developments in a case and changes in the status or location of a defendant or convict.
"I do not support amending the Constitution lightly," said Clinton, who until now has not backed any proposed constitutional amendments.
"It is sacred. It should be changed only with great caution and after much consideration."
The president did not endorse a proposed victims' rights constitutional amendment introduced earlier this year by Sens. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
Instead, he spoke about working with them and others in Congress to "craft the best possible amendment."
The president spoke broadly about victims' rights, including: being notified of and not excluded from public court proceedings; being heard by the trial court about the release of the accused, the sentence and acceptance of any plea; receiving restitution from the defendant; and being told of any release or escape from custody of the defendant.
Associate Attorney General John Schmidt said that the president did not mention "a victim's right to a speedy trial" of the defendant, which is included in the Senate measure, because of concerns that it could impede a prosecutor's control of a case.
Schmidt said the administration is working with the senators to come up with "appropriate language" that would not interfere with effective prosecution.
"I'm very pleased that President Clinton has made a strong statement of support for a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of crime victims," Feinstein said in a statement.
"The president's support gives a critical boost to this important issue."
That the president endorsed the amendment is testament to the strength of the politically powerful crime victims' rights movement, which has been forcefully advocating such measures.
About 20 states have passed amendments to their constitutions.
"Thomas Jefferson has been our hero. He said many years ago he was not an advocate for changing the Constitution, but as society changes so must we change," said Greg Novak, a leader of Florida's victims rights movement who was surprised when he got a call summoning him to the White House.
"It's about time that we change to include victims in our Constitution."
Pub Date: 6/26/96