Letter: Giving Victims a Voice |CITY|
Submitted by dan. on 2007-05-16 23:00.
Victim impact statements serve an important role in allowing victims a voice in the criminal justice system. But it is a limited voice, as several recent news articles remind us.
The opportunity to make a victim impact statement, the brainchild of Fresno, California Chief Probation Officer Jim Rowland in 1976, has become an important part of victim support and advocacy around the world. It offers an opportunity for victims or survivors to make a statement about how they have been affected by crime. It adds a brief reminder in a hearing focused on the offender that a victim was harmed by the offender's actions.
As a reform, victim impact statements have been grafted into a system whose focus is the offender. As such, there is conceptual confusion about what they mean in that system. Should the judge take the statement into account while sentencing? If so, does that place an offender whose victim is determined and articulate at a disadvantage compared to a similar offenders whose victim makes no statement? What if the victim is forgiving, or retributive -- how should this influence the judge?
Often legal or procedural rules are developed to allow the victim to speak without putting the defendant at an unfair advantage during this critical hearing. The judge, for example, may be given discretion to decide whether to allow the victim impact statement to be presented at all. In an Illinois case, the family of a 13-year-old who was struck and disabled by a drunk driver was permitted to submit a written statement but not to make a verbal statement in court. The judge's explanation was that "the girl is the victim", not the family.
The relevant statute gives victims the right to submit impact statements in writing to the prosecutor that must be considered by the judge at sentencing. It also requires judges to allow victims to make oral statements at the sentencing hearing, but relatives the victims may only request that the judge allow them to make their statements. So the judge's statement, while insensitive, was legally accurate.
In one of today's news stories, the son of a murdered teacher has been told that he may not submit his victim impact statement in New Zealand courts unless he cuts out portions that exceed provisions of the victim rights statute. That statute says that victims may speak of the physical or emotional impact of the crime as well as of property damage or loss. It does not permit personal statements about the offender or recommendations concerning the sentence.
The son, when told that such statements are inappropriate, asked, "Is murder appropriate?...Because a victim can't say what he
wants, seems to say that murder is OK."
His frustration and that of the family of the Illinois girl are understandable. They illustrate the difficulty of accommodating victim interests into a system whose focus in the offender.
To really give victims a voice, they must be given a forum in which their opinion is relevant to the purpose and outcome of the hearing. Direct communication with offenders in some way gives victims the opportunity to say what they think of the offenders. While this needs to be done respectfully (see pages 15-16 of the RJ City Phase 1 final report), the statement can still be forceful, direct and difficult for the offender to hear.
This is one more reason we need many more opportunities for restorative encounters. Another reason we need to build RJ City.
Let's stay in touch,
Dan Van Ness
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