Victims of Crime Research Series
Summary Report on Victim Impact Statement Focus Groups
Findings of Focus Group on Victim Impact Statements Held in Six Sites
The first focus group conducted as part of this project for the Department of Justice took pla ce on Wednesday March 22 in the downtown Vancouver facilities of Canadian Facts. Thirteen names of potential participants were provided to us by victim/witness service programs in the lower mainland. Of the thirteen names, four were members of one family. Only one member of this family was asked to join the group.
Eight of the individuals who expressed interest in the group actually agreed to participate and attended. Of these eight individuals, five were women and three were men. All of the crimes of which these people were victims were violent and/or sexual in nature. Two involved spousal violence, two involved historical child sexual abuse, and two involved sexual assaults. One participant was a member of a murder victim’s family. The nature of the eighth participant’s victimization was not known.
Questions Posed to the Group and Findings
How did you first become aware that you could prepare and submit a VIS? Was this early enough (to complete statement before sentencing)?
The majority of the focus group participants received information about the Victim Impact Statements from the Victim Assistance worker with whom they had contact. Others received their information in the mail, either from the Victims Assistance Program or from the Crown’s office. Some of the mailed information was seen as incomplete and not adequately situating the Victim Impact Statement in the larger context of the trial process.
Adequate time was allowed to victims to complete their statements.
Were you actively encouraged to complete a VIS, or was it presented as more of an option available to you?
The participants were generally encouraged to prepare their statements by the Victim Assistance workers with whom they interacted.
Concern was expressed about accessibility of Victim Impact Statements to people on the margins of society, including those of limited literacy and those who are mistrusting of the police and courts. The experience of preparing a Victim Impact Statement is seen as particularly empowering for those whose circumstances may tend to marginalize them.
What is your understanding of what Victim Impact Statements are supposed to do?
Victim impact statements are to provide an opportunity for victims to have a say in the sentencing process. Without them, the effects of crimes on both the specific victims as well as their families and networks of neighbours and acquaintances go unrecognized within the trial process.
What information were you given about Victim Impact Statements and their use? Was this information clear and complete? Did you have any unanswered questions about VIS at that time?
Greater clarity on the Victim Impact Statement forms in terms of what they should cover would have been helpful to some participants. Others preferred an approach where the victim expresses themselves in their own words and according to the headings which they themselves saw as most important.
What problems if any did you have in completing your statement? Did you request anyone’s assistance to fill it out? Was this assistance helpful?
Some who dealt with the Crown’s office on their statements reported that the amount and quality of assistance provided varied according to the individual Crown with whom they were dealing. One participant, whose trial was held in Toronto (the location of the crime), reported receiving very positive support from the police in preparing her statement.
Some support was expressed for the notion of having a telephone information service, perhaps with an 800-number, which victims could call for assistance as they prepared their statements. It was recognized that this kind of assistance was often available from and provided by their local Victim Assistance programs.
The participant whose trial was held in Ontario saw merit in a national format for Victim Impact Statements which would ease their transferability from one province to another.
Were you told of any restrictions on the types of information which could be included in a VIS?
The only types of information which participants recognized as not being permissible in the statements referred to the offender’s previous criminal record.
Participants believed that, if a victim wishes to prepare a statement that is vindictive in its content and tone, that should be their decision. They recognized, however, that this strategy might backfire in terms of how the statement is received and used by the Court in sentencing.
Would there have been other information that you would have liked to include in your VIS?
Participants mentioned information about the accused’s prior crimina l record, and the indirect impact of the crime on members of the victim’s family (e.g., the emotional turmoil experienced by the spouse of a victim of historical sexual abuse) as types of information they would have liked to include in their statements.
Did you have any concerns (e.g., privacy, safety ) about completing the VIS?
With respect to concerns about privacy and safety, some participants’ main concern related to the access the offender had to their statement, and the potential for retaliation from the accused or his friends and family. One participant also reported that, after the trial, Social Services came to take custody of her children, presumably because of information in the Victim Impact Statement to which Social Services had access.
What happened with your VIS after you completed it? Were you kept up-to-date?
Participants were not aware of what happened to their statements after they handed them in.
Were any parts of your VIS changed? If yes, by whom? Why did this happen? What was your reaction to this?
None of the participants reported that their statement was changed by anyone else following their drafting of it. They did, however, report that it was valuable to them to have their statements read by other individuals, particularly their Victim Assistance Program workers, to achieve the balance and tone.
Do you know if a judge received your VIS? How do you know this?
Some participants acknowledged that they did not know for sure whether or not the judge had read their statement. They were also unclear as to whether or not it was mandatory for the judge to read the statements that they had prepared. Some participants repeated the view that it was not mandatory for statements to be given to the judges.
Did the offender receive a copy of your completed VIS? Did you know that this would happen? If not, had you known, would you still have decided to complete a VIS?
Some participants did not know that the offender would have access to their statements. However, most believe it proper that the Defence and accused have access to the infor mation in the statement. They do not, however, think that the Defence should be able to directly challenge them on the content of their statements. The offender should not have the to question the victim on their feelings because the victim knows these feelings better than anyone else.
Some participants did not want the offender to know how the crime had affected their whole life.
Participants expressed concern that the offender would be able to review their statement prior to sentencing. Some perceived this as an opportunity for the offender to reinforce the harm they had inflicted on the victim. One participant thought that only the judge would have access to her statement. Even this victim, though, acknowledged that she would have completed her statement regardless of the offender’s access to it. Other participants valued the fact that the offender would be reminded of the harm he had inflicted upon them. Some participants were also concerned that the information they provided in their statement might provoke the offender to retaliate when they completed their jail sentence.
Were you questioned by the Defence lawyer on your VIS? What were your reactions to this?
None of the participants were addressed directly by the Defence lawyer on the content of their statements. The only exception was one brief clarification of a point of fact. There were, however, some comments addressed to the Court but not directly to the victim, challenging some elements of the statements.
One participant reported that the Defence counsel had belittled the content of her statement. She found this to be extremely upsetting and inappropriate, given that the statement concerned the impacts of the crime on her family and did not address the characteristics or guilt of the accused. In this case, the participant believed that the statements given had a significant impact on the length of the sentence given. The comments of Defence were addressed to the court and not directly to the victim.
Did you know that a Defence lawyer might question you on your VIS? If not, would this have caused you to change your mind about completing a VIS?
Some participants were taken by surprise when they learned that Defence was entitled to challenge the content of the statements. Most would still have completed a VIS had they known beforehand.
Did you ask if you could read your VIS aloud? Were you permitted to do so? Had you had this opportunity, would you have taken it? Yes/no, why not?
Three of the eight group participants read their statements aloud in court. No participant who wanted to read their statement aloud was denied the opportunity to do so. Several participants strongly expressed the
view that it is essential that victims be allowed, if they wish, to present their statements orally. They did not think that this decision should be left to the judges
Did the judge refer to your VIS in sentencing?
Some victims regretted that there was no formal validation of the experiences and impacts they described in their statement from the Court or elsewhere. One described her statement as
“simply falling into a hole.” A simple acknowledgement that the statement had been received by someone in the system would have been appreciated.
Judicial acknowledgement of the effort and emotional cost to victims of preparing their statement would be appreciated by victims. The view is expressed that some judges may in fact not want to use or acknowledge Victim Impact Statements in sentencing.
Opinions varied strongly among participants in terms of whether or not they believed that their statement had an impact on sentencing. Some participants felt strongly supported by the judge when they read their statement aloud.
Would you go through the process of completing a VIS again knowing what you know now?
Knowing what they know now, the only thing the participants would do differently would be to provide more complete information on the impacts on themselves, their families, friends and other acquaintances. One participant especially appreciated the fact that the judge had quoted his statements in sentence without giving a specific citation for it.
Did you get anything positive out of the experience?
Some see the overall objectives of the statements as giving the victims a voice at sentencing. If it is not mandatory that the judges see the statements, then any value in the statements comes purely from their therapeutic aspect. Participants attached considerable value to the therapeutic worth of the statements, although the actual preparation and delivery of them was very emotional and difficult.
A valuable contribution of the opportunity to prepare a statement for victims who testified in their trials was the ability to include in their statements information which they were prevented from providing in their testimony. Where a guilty plea is entered suddenly, the presence of a Victim Impact Statement enables the victim’s perspective to be presented even though they do not testify and they may not be present at that time.
The statement allowed some victims to bring to the court’s attention the impacts of some specific charges which were bargained out of the final sentence.
Several victims brought their statements with them to the focus group. These were described as
“important documents in their lives.”
The most important validation of these statements would come from the victim’s belief that the punishment fit the crime. However, there are too many other factors which influence sentencing beyond the statement that must be acknowledged.
One participant had also found her Victim Impact Statement useful for the process of applying for criminal injuries compensation.
One participant expressed the view that some offenders may come to think more seriously about the harm they had done as a result of hearing the Victim Impact Statement. This may be particularly true for young offenders who might not otherwise think of their crime in this way.
Thinking back over their experience with Victim Impact Statements, some participants indicated that, were they to do it again, they would be more complete and detailed in their accounting of the impacts of
the crime on them and their families. Some participants reported that the process of completing the Victim Impact Statement prompted them to thoroughly review the effects on them of the crime and to identify impacts which they otherwise would not have.
Some participants resisted the use of the term “victim” within Victim Impact Statements, suggesting that a more appropriate name would be a Crime Impact Statement. In part this reflects their reluctance to think of themselves as victims. Others saw no shame in being referred to as victims.
Participants were unclear as to whether or not their statement would be included in the official Court record and therefore accessible to anyone who wanted to read it. It was also unclear whether or not the Victim Impact Statement would be available to the Parole Board at the time of a parole hearing.
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