Q & A With Marsy’s Law For Illinois State Director Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins serves as State Director of Marsy’s Law for Illinois as well as Director of the Illinois Victims Organization and as the owner / operator of Love Fur Dogs, LLC.  She is an advisor to the United States Sentencing Commission, Victim Advisory Group (VAG) and is a board member of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. She has worked with the Sheila A. Doyle Foundation, the Cook County Board and with Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee.  

How did you become involved with crime victims’ rights and Marsy’s Law?

When my beloved younger sister Nancy, her husband Richard, and their unborn child were brutally murdered in 1990, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me in my life – worse than anyone who has not been through it could ever understand. My family’s lives – my life – were changed forever. Everything changed – how I viewed the world and other people, what I knew was really important. 

The process of investigating the crime and finally discovering the identity of the offender was a nightmare in some ways even worse than the crime because of its protracted nature. It took almost two years to come to trial. The retraumatization was constant. The trial itself took two weeks. None of us could focus on anything else in our lives all that time. 

Finally, the end came and the jury quickly came back with three guilty verdicts. The judge set the date for the sentencing hearing several weeks later. Finally, we would get to have our say after the forced silence that we had to endure during the media attention leading up to the trial. Finally, there was no doubt – justice was coming. We began drafting our victim impact statements. This would be the chance for the full story of who they were – of what the crime took from us and the world – the full story to go into the court record. 

The day before the sentencing hearing arrived, we got a phone call from the court – Don’t come to the hearing – don’t bother. The life sentences are mandatory so we are not going to take time to do any victim impact statements. It won’t change anything so don’t worry about taking off work again – just stay home.

At the time I remember being very disappointed. But, as we had been doing the last two years, we did what we were told by the authorities. But it was such an anti-climax. And we found out decades later in new appeals awarded young offenders by the US Supreme Court that NOT having those statements in the original sentencing record actually really hurt many years later. 

I had no idea at that time that the court violated our rights. I didn’t even know that victims had rights. I did not know that they had violated the law and, at the time, had no idea that Illinois law granted the right but also denied any legal means to enforce a violation of those rights. It bothered me for years. Now I understand how. 

I spent two decades after the crime trying to combat violence and raise a family. I married a wonderful man – Bill Jenkins – whose son was also murdered. He introduced me to the victim movement and I got involved in helping victims through several organizations. Each year Bill and I would attend the NOVA Conference – the National Organization of Victim Assistance. In 2009, we got to hear at that conference about the passage of Marsy’s Law in California. I had already been meeting with other victim advocates in Illinois for almost two years about the need to fix the laws in Illinois that denied enforcement of the rights of crime victims. I couldn’t wait to run up to the Marsy’s Law leaders to tell them we wanted to bring Marsy’s Law to Illinois. A few years later and a lot of work, we passed Marsy’s Law for Illinois – a constitutional amendment that gave victims standing in their cases and a means to enforce the guarantee of their rights. 

No family should ever be denied the right to make an impact statement after the murder of their loved ones, and now thanks to Marsy’s Law, they will have a remedy if any court tries to do again what was done to us.

How has Marsy’s Law made an impact since passing in Illinois?

Since passage of Marsy’s Law in Illinois we have worked to pass detailed implementation legislation into statute, reflecting the new constitutional language. We have seen real interest from most members of the legal community – prosecutors, judges, lawyers, law enforcement – to attend trainings being held around the state by the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Advocates from MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving)  and the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault have reported that they have been able to fix problems with their clients’ cases that previously they would not have been able to fix. More privacy has been protected. Notifications of post conviction proceedings that victims were previously not being notified about are starting to happen. 

It hasn’t been perfect – I still get phone calls from victims that mistakes are being made. But now when I get a report of an offender release without notice, we can DO something. We have a procedure that we can put in place for victim redress. And sometimes all it takes is a phone call to an official who still, somehow, was not aware of the changes in the law.

What is most exciting is that the culture is starting to change in the criminal justice system. Victims are not being marginalized as before and are no longer seen as something to be “controlled” rather than included.  The passage of a constitutional amendment giving us standing in our cases, able to file motions related to our rights, has already increased communication between victims and prosecutors. Best of all, we have seen that the newer younger Assistant States Attorneys are especially interested in learning about how these new procedures can help them better do their job. 

We are still watching the implementation and monitoring how well the administrative court instructions are rewritten. We are still assessing how well the Marsy Card distribution is occurring at the time of the crimes so that victims are told their rights and have contact information for next steps in exercising their rights. We are still waiting to hear on VOCA funding for a low-cost legal clinic for victim legal services. But now we have a chance to get such a clinic – something we could not even ask for before because we did not have the law in place to support such a request.

Most heart-wrenchingly, I still receive phone calls from victims in tears thanking us for our work. I know Marsy’s Law has truly helped many thousands of people’s lives at the worst times of crisis. It will even be helping people long after anyone remembers a time when we did not have protected rights in the criminal justice system. I feel privileged to be able to see this up close and personal. I know this honors the memory of Marsy Nicholas and her wonderful family.