State Senate Passes Package of Bills to Strengthen Protections for Crime Victims

HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Senate today passed a package of bills designed to provide stronger protections for crime victims and ensure they have more opportunities to participate in the judicial process.

Sponsored by Senator Wayne Langerholc, Jr. (R-35), Senator Lisa Baker (R-20), and Senator Dan Laughlin (R-49), the four bills were passed during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

The package of bills includes measures to give crime victims more rights to attend criminal trials; expands the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism to provide testimony; provides hearsay exceptions for statements made by young witnesses of cases of sexual assault; shields rape victims against irrelevant cross examinations; and provides for a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors.

Nearly 16 million Americans were victimized by crime in 2016, 5.7 million of whom were victims of violent crime.

“Today we strengthen victim rights and provide more justice and resources to those who have been affected. Today, we say your voice will be heard and we stand with you in this Commonwealth,” said Langerholc, who sponsored three of the bills.

Langerholc’s first bill, Senate Bill 399, was amended today and will face a final Senate vote Wednesday. It would enact a comprehensive bill of rights in Pennsylvania for survivors of sexual assault.  The legislation reflects a federal Survivors’ Bill of Rights that was signed into law in 2016.  It would guarantee basic rights for sexual assault survivors, including rights related to the collection and use of evidence.

“This country lacks standard measures for sexual assault victims in reporting assaults, resulting in a patchwork of laws that fail to protect their liberties,” Langerholc said. “A comprehensive state bill of rights law in Pennsylvania will help guarantee that survivors of sexual assault have reasonable protections and procedures.”

The Senate also approved Senate Bill 425, which would amend the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act to prevent crime victims from being excluded from the trial of their offenders.  Under the measure, victims would be able to attend criminal or juvenile proceedings, unless the court determines that the victim’s testimony would be materially altered if the victim heard other testimony at the proceeding. 

 “As a former assistant district attorney, I found it troublesome that victims are not always allowed to attend the entirety of criminal trials,” Langerholc said.  “This legislation would amend Pennsylvania’s Crime Victims Act to bring it in line with the federal law and ensure that victims’ rights are protected.”

Langerholc’s third bill, Senate Bill 431, would toughen Pennsylvania’s Rape Shield Law by expanding the list of crimes in which past sexual conduct of a victim is inadmissible in court to include human trafficking, incest, corruption of minors, and sexual abuse and exploitation of children. It also bars evidence of past sexual victimization.

“Asking a victim about times in the past when he or she was a victim, or claimed to be a victim, is another unfortunate way to dismiss the victim’s character or try to demean them in open court, and can ultimately discourage victims from coming forward,” Langerholc said.      

The Senate also unanimously endorsed Senate Bill 469, sponsored by Senator Dan Laughlin (R-49), which would extend Pennsylvania’s existing Tender Years Hearsay Exception for court testimony to those with intellectual disabilities or autism. While hearsay evidence is usually prohibited in a criminal trial, the “tender years exception” allows a statement made by a child under age 12 to another person to become admissible against a defendant.

“In fact, predators are more likely to target people with disabilities or severe autism because they know these victims can be easier to manipulate or may have difficulty testifying later,” said Senator Laughlin. “These victims should not be made to suffer more because they cannot necessarily communicate effectively in court. If they have made statements outside of court that are deemed by a judge to be reliable, then these statements should be admissible in court.”

Senate Bill 479, sponsored by Senator Lisa Baker (R-20), would expand the Tender Years Exception to apply to a wider variety of crimes, including serious sexual offenses. This exception currently only applies in cases of homicide, assault, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, and a narrow number of sexual offenses.

“Children who have been abused have been violated emotionally as well as physically,” Baker said. “Providing for out-of-court statements helps remove kids from the pressure and intimidation of confronting their abuser in a situation that can easily prove overwhelming.”

The bills were sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.

On Monday, the Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Senator Bob Mensch (R-24) designating April 7 – 14 as Crime Victims’ Rights Week in Pennsylvania.

CONTACT:  Gwenn Dando   (717) 599-1164 gdando@pasen.gov