A victim impact statement is oral or written information that comes from someone who was impacted by a crime. This person uses their own words to describe how the event has affected their life in some way. All 50 states in the U.S. allow for this info to be presented in the courtroom at some point during the sentencing phase of a legal case. Most allow them to be at parole hearings as well, and victim impact data is often included in the pre-sentencing reports that judges see.
The purpose of a victim impact statement is to allow the affected individual to describe to the court or the parole board what the impact of a crime was in their life. Judges may use this information as part of their consideration when sentencing a convicted offender. The members of a parole board can use the statement as part of their determination in imposing release conditions for someone in jail or prison – or to keep them behind bars because of what the offender’s actions caused.
A handful of states in the U.S. allow a victim impact statement to be introduced at a bail hearing, pre-trial release, or during plea bargain hearings.
There are several pros and cons of a victim impact statement to consider when looking at how this information can impact the criminal justice system.
List of the Pros of a Victim Impact Statement
1. It provides more information to the court than may otherwise be available.
Victim impact statements can provide more information about the damage that occurs to the victims of a crime than might otherwise be available to the court or a parole board. Most people who are the targets of criminal conduct are not called upon to testify in court, despite how television shows sometimes portray the criminal justice system. Even if their testimony is part of the record, the answers they give are usually narrow and scope based on the questions given.
This statement can often be the only opportunity that a victim has to participate in the criminal justice process. It allows them a chance to ensure that their voice is heard as part of the process.
2. It is sometimes the only opportunity to confront an offender.
Criminal activities always create victims. The justice system in the United States doesn’t always allow the victims to confront the individuals who wronged them unless the impact statement is part of the process. These words, whether spoken or written, are often the only time that it is possible to tell an offender how they feel about that person’s actions. Most victims report that making a statement to the court or to a parole board hearing improves their satisfaction with the overall process of the justice system. It can even be helpful in the recovery from a crime.
3. There are limitations on what a victim impact statement may contain.
Victims are not allowed to say whatever they want about an offender to the court or a parole board. There are specific content items that this information must contain. It may include a description of the physical or emotional damage caused by the criminal act, the financial costs to the individual, and any medical or psychological treatments that are necessary as part of the recovery process. The need for restitution is permitted as part of this statement as well, covering the court-ordered funds that an offender pays to a victim for crime-related expenses.
Some states allow the victims to share their views on the crime or the person who committed the offense. Impact statements can sometimes include an opinion on what would be an appropriate sentence. Outside of these areas, there are limitations in what can be said.
4. Defendants have the ability to challenge the accuracy of a statement.
A victim impact statement can be a therapeutic opportunity to start the healing process after a crime. The law allows a defendant to protect themselves from this information by challenging the accuracy of the facts that are presented in this information. This advantage makes it possible for someone to protect themselves against oral or written content that could be damaging to their case at any phase of it. There are times when a challenge is not permitted and the effort must be done in a way that doesn’t further traumatize the individual, but it does allow for some back-and-forth instead of the statement being a one-sided conversation.
5. Victims are not required to offer an impact statement.
If someone is the victim of a crime, then they might have some mixed feelings about making an impact statement. Some welcome the opportunity to tell a hearing officer or judge about how the incident affects their life. Others can feel anxious because they don’t know how to prepare this information or remembering the crime can bring back challenging emotions and difficult memories that they wish to avoid. It is never easy to describe a traumatic incident, so the criminal justice system doesn’t require this information to be available.
6. Judges often find that a victim impact statement is useful.
The introduction of a victim impact statement without encouraging legal professionals to consider the information is unlikely to be beneficial to the process. Some statutory frameworks direct the courts to consider the statements at sentencing, which is an option that judges say they find is useful when considering a case that involves violence.
Over 80% of judges say that they use the information found in a victim impact statement as part of their decision on sentencing a convicted offender, which is a rate that dates back to at least 2001.
7. There is little evidence to suggest a victim impact statement negatively impacts sentencing.
There are a number of adverse effects attributed to the victim impact statement at sentencing, such as an influence on the charging habits of the prosecutor or adjusting the length of a sentence so that it is longer. The results of research in the UK dating back to 1999 show that sentencing patterns and prosecutorial decisions do not become less consistent or more severe because a victim has the opportunity to provide additional information that wouldn’t be available otherwise. Research from 1994 by Erez, Roeger, and Morgan found that there was no change in the severity of sentencing patterns after the introduction of these statements either.
Although there may be the occasional case that does become influenced by a victim impact statement, most legal professionals can separate their emotional reaction to this information and the sentencing requirements that the law mandates.
8. Some victim impact statements might lower the rate of offenders re-offending.
The original goal of a victim impact statement was to enhance the satisfaction that people received from the criminal justice system. It was a way to ensure that the nature of a crime was conveyed accurately to the court during the sentencing phase of a trial or before. When offenders receive more information about their conduct and its impact on others, there is some evidence to suggest that ongoing exchanges between them and people who have been victimized can lower the risk of re-offending once out of jail or prison. Reading or hearing a victim impact statement could have a positive effect on the offender, although empirical research is lacking in this area.
9. It doesn’t take much time to produce a victim impact statement.
The time that it takes an individual to create a victim impact statement is similar to the commitment necessary to fill out a police report. Although it is an extra step that victims take as part of the criminal justice system that wouldn’t be asked of them if a crime hadn’t been committed against them, there are some therapeutic benefits to consider. It is much easier to cope with challenging emotions when someone can transition memories and thoughts into words. This work can then help to kickstart their recovery process so that it is easier to move on with their life. Presenting this information to the court, either orally or written, can be a very empowering experience.
List of the Cons of a Victim Impact Statement
1. Most victims do not submit impact statements.
Victim impact statements first began to appear in the 1970s in the United States. This information quickly spread to the rest of the world for countries using the common law approach to criminal justice. One of the most important lessons learned through this process is that only a minority of people wish to appear to make a statement at sentencing. That means it is different for other data sources at sentencing, such as a pre-sentence report, which is relevant as part of the sentencing decision. Most victims do not appear at parole hearings either, although there is an exception in serious cases.
2. Very few people want to deliver an oral victim impact statement.
When a victim impact statement is prepared in accordance with an officially designated program, then most people have the right to deliver this information in person if they so choose. There are a variety of reasons why most people do not, with the most common issue being the need to be in the same room as the offender who perpetrated the crime. There is a fear present that they could be attacked again in some way even though there are safeguards in place to prevent such an action.
Many jurisdictions expect the number of people delivering victim impact statements in person to grow over time, but the exercise will always have some limitations because of the proximity requirements there are between the victim and offender.
3. The court may not be able to contact some victims of a crime.
One of the most significant barriers to the use of victim impact statements during proceedings is that there are sometimes practical difficulties in regards to contacting an affected person. It may not be possible to contact the victim of a crime when the sentencing phase of a trial is imminent. The results of that hearing often proceed without the information – or even without knowing if the victim was apprised of their right to submit a written statement or present an oral one in court.
This disadvantage persists in every country where victim impact statements are permitted by the criminal justice system. Support service providers are helping to reduce the issue, but there is still a challenge in place for judges to establish whether victims have had the opportunity to submit a statement.
4. Victim impact statements are most often submitted in serious cases.
Although a victim impact statement is usually permitted whenever an offender goes to the sentencing phase of their trial (if not before), it is usually only in the most serious cases where someone is likely to submit this information for review. Research dating back to 2004 shows that the most common times for this statement to appear are when the offense involves extreme or unexpected financial loss, personal injury, or had intensive and repeated contact with support service personnel.
When victims have a clear and realistic expectation of the purpose of this information, then they are more likely to feel satisfied with the result from the sentencing phase of the trial. There are times when the government is motivated to enter a victim impact statement; however, and it could unduly influence the outcome of a case if the approach taken is prejudicial.
5. It can lead people to believe that their actions can result in a harsher sentence.
The victim impact statement has the potential to arouse an expectation that cannot be fulfilled using the adversarial model of criminal justice in common law countries. If a victim is led to believe that their statement will result in a harsher sentence or a better chance that a verdict will occur, then there will be disappointment if the expectation doesn’t match with reality. This disadvantage is one of the most common causes of dissatisfaction amongst people who have suffered a crime against them.
That’s why most jurisdictions prohibit or discourage individuals from making a recommendation on a specific sentence. It is up to the justice system to educate people about how a victim impact statement can be appropriately used, but Prairie Research Associates in Canada found that 25% of victims still felt that their information would influence the sentence.
6. A victim impact statement can include extraneous material.
There are times when a victim impact statement contains materials that are inappropriate for the court or the parole board, including items that may be antagonistic or prejudicial. Although there are mechanisms in place for most jurisdictions that allow defendants to protect themselves from these circumstances, there can be a lack of clarity at times regarding the expressive purposes of this information.
If prejudicial or antagonistic information is submitted in writing to the court or parole board, then some jurisdictions allow the document to go through an editing process. Judges may also disallow parts of the statement – actions that can be distressing for the victims too.
7. There are times when it may have few psychological benefits.
When the victim impact statement becomes assimilated into the general routine of the criminal justice system, then people might approach the task of completing this information in the same way they would filling out an insurance document. The exercise would have little psychological significance in such a situation, especially since it would feel like a required part of the process. There might even be resistance to the required work of telling their story in their own words, creating a scenario where the legal system could potentially victimize them again – at least emotionally. That’s why it is imperative for the criminal justice system to ensure that this information is distinguishable from the other administrative requirements that come as part of a judicial proceeding.
8. There is little empirical evidence that these statements are useful in some situations.
Most of the empirical evidence that exists regarding victim impact statements involves the exploration and utility of them at the sentencing stage of a criminal justice proceeding. Few qualitative studies exist that look at the use of this information at parole hearings, especially since victim participation happens less often. This disadvantage exists in the jurisdictions where the statement is allowable at bail hearings or pre-trial motions as well. Until we learn more about what the actual impact of this data is in these situations, it is difficult to determine if the effort is useful.
The most important lesson to be learned about a victim impact statement is that it will not fulfill every expectation that someone may have of the sentencing process. Each victim must receive enough information about making this statement and be provided with sufficient contact with legal professionals to ensure that they begin to document what happened to them with realistic expectations.
Most western nations have embraced the concept of a victim impact statement despite some of its potential disadvantages. Many legal scholars believe that the benefits of allowing a victim to have input at sentencing outweigh whatever issues might arise. Instead of forcing prosecutors to represent this information to the court, having each victim place crime impact information before the court provides a more accurate result.
The pros and cons of victim impact statements may continue evolving as this practice gains more traction around the world. It is not a required component of a trial, but this information could provide a therapeutic moment for some people to begin the process of healing and moving on from what happened to them.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.