Victims of Crime Research Series
Summary Report on Victim Impact Statement Focus Groups

Appendix B (cont'd)

Findings of Focus Group on Victim Impact Statements Held in Six Sites

REGINA (MARCH 23, 2000)


The Regina Focus Group on Victim Impact Statements was conducted in the offices of CANWEST OPINION on March 23, 2000. A total of seven women participated in the focus group. The group was quite diverse. All were at different stages in the process of completing/submitting their Victim Impact Statements. Three had completed a statement but had not handed it in (for one reason or another). Four had completed and submitted a statement that had been considered by the court in sentencing.

Questions Posed to the Group and Findings

How did you first become aware that you could prepare and submit a VIS?

All but one participant had been informed of the VIS through Victim Services. One participant indicated having been informed about the VIS by the Police. This participant had written many statements throughout the year but never a VIS. She reported being woken by the police late at night and told she had to complete a VIS before the accused’s next court date. She was obviously upset that she had not been informed of this possibility earlier. She indicated to the group that the police told her this was a new program.

Another respondent indicated that she had not had the chance to give her statement to the court and was unsure about what had happened to her statement. She reported that the court date had been set for March, but that it had been moved up to January. She was not informed of the change and therefore did not attend court.

The four participants who had submitted their statements did so either one or two weeks prior to sentencing or the day of the trial. Many reported their case had been ongoing for a year or more.

One respondent indicated that she first become aware of VIS through Victim Services, but had held off on completing her VIS because she wasn’t sure how she felt at that time. She reported that the police had provided her with the VIS materials.

Some participants in the group felt that some time needs to pass before you complete a VIS in order to better assess how the crime has impacted on your life. Others suggested that perhaps it depends on the crime. For break-and-enters, for instance, it was felt that a VIS could be prepared shortly after the crime, but for the death of a child by a drunk driver (or other crimes of a more serious nature) some time needs to be allowed. Two participants indicated it might be best to allow victims the possibility of completing several VIS, “because you go through different stages.”

One respondent indicated people need to be advised of the possibility of completing a VIS after the crime so that they can monitor what’s happening in their lives and don’t overlook impacts of the crime. If victims are given access to the form immediately after the crime, the time between then and their trial allows some time to think about the effects of the crime.

Were you actively encouraged to complete a VIS or was it presented as more of an option?

Respondents reported that the VIS was presented to them as more of an option; they were not actively encouraged to complete a VIS. One remarked that it was very much encouraged. Only one respondent indicated she was actively encouraged to complete and submit her VIS by the Police-but she understood that it was voluntary.

What is your understanding of what VIS are supposed to do?

Most participants understood the purpose of a VIS. They explained that a VIS is a statement that describes how the crime has affected your life. Several noted that there is a big difference between a statement of the facts of crime and the VIS. Several participants felt that VIS are important because they give the victim a voice—they are the only means available to victims to tell their stories to the court.

What information were you given about Victim Impact Statements and their use?

Participants had different understandings of where/when to send their statements, how these would be used, and what to include (or not) in their VIS. It would appear that the completeness of the information provided may vary depending on the source (e.g., Victims Services, the police or the Crown Attorney).

There was obvious confusion around the question of where to send the VIS. One participant who had not yet sent in her VIS indicated she thought her statement was to be sent to the RCMP and that only the prosecutor and the judge would see the document. Others reported VIS should be given to the court; some felt they should return it to Victim Services.

One participant reported she had been instructed to bring her statement to the Police. She explained that her statement never made it to court. It was left in the police files. The day of sentencing she asked her lawyer about the VIS, at which point she realized no one had received or read her statement. At her insistence, the judge called a recess so that they could locate her VIS and have it faxed to the court for consideration in sentencing. Before this, however, the judge asked her if she could “sum it up in a couple of words” and she said no. She would have wanted to read it aloud but was not given the opportunity to do so.

There were also some questions/discussion around whether the victim has the to read the VIS in court. Some were obviously well informed, others less so (see discussion below).

What problems, if any, did you have in completing the VIS/Were you told of restrictions on type of information?

Participants reported no difficulties in completing their VIS; none requested assistance filling it out. All recognized that Victim Services would have provided the assistance had it been required. Most indicated assistance had been offered.

The one participant who had experience with both the police and Victim Services indicated that Victim Services was much better at explaining the use of the statements. She recommended that if the police are to be handing them out, then they should be more informative. Others agreed and mentioned there could be a better link to services that can provide assistance in this area.

One participant reported asking the Crown Attorney: “what exactly do you want in this, what kinds of things am I suppose to put in this, what is the purpose of it?” She was told not to recount the crime because this information was already available. He also suggested she not include anything that the Defence lawyer “could make a big deal out of too.” He explained that if the VIS is entered into the Crown’s files before the trial, then he is obligated to disclose this statement to the Defence: “and then they can pick (it) apart and are allowed to ask you questions also.” Another participant indicated she had received similar instructions from the Crown.

A few participants in the group reported receiving an outline from Victim Services. This, they felt, had been helpful: the information was clear and that there were no unanswered questions. One person mentioned that the outline recommended not to include anything about income.

Generally speaking, participants were very supportive of Victims Services and were pleased with the services they had received. One participant indicated she was glad that such a program exists, that there is somebody to get in touch with the victim, and that you can vent your anger somewhere. Another commented she was happy to be living in town because these services are not available in the country.

One respondent questioned the accessibility of Victim Impact Statements to people whose literacy is poor. She mentioned that there was no indication on the form of the availability of assistance to complete the VIS, or reference to an organization that could provide that help. Others mentioned that this information is also not provided orally when victims are given the form.

Would there have been other information you would have liked to include?

Respondents had almost no response to this question. As indicated above, some had been advised by the Crown not to recount the crime, but to speak about how it had impacted on their lives.

Respondents commented that their statements were about three or four pages long. One participant indicated that she didn’t think she would have said anything differently. Others around the table agreed.

Did you have concerns (e.g., privacy, security) about completing the VIS?

Several in the group were not in agreement with the Defence getting a copy of the VIS. One participant reported she experienced fear when she found out he would get a copy; she felt he could use the statement against her.

Generally, participants were unsure why the Defence should receive copies of VIS. Some remarked that as victims they are given very little information on the defendant’s case. Most felt the Defence should not have the to see their statements. One indicated that victims do have some choice in the matter in that they can submit their VIS at the last minute.

What happened with your VIS after you completed it? Were you kept up-to-date?

Only one participant indicated that she was unsure about what had happened to her VIS. The date of her trial had been changed, and no one had informed her of the new date. She could not say why this happened--all she knew was that the accused was now incarcerated and that she had not had the opportunity to read her statement in court.

Most were unaware of what happens to the statement after it is read in court. One participant informed the group that it is placed on file and that should there be a breach of probation, it may be considered again.

Were any parts of your VIS changed?

All participants responded “no” to this question.

Do you know if the judge received your VIS?

Of the four participants who had completed and submitted a VIS, only one person reported the judge never received her VIS (that the VIS had to be faxed to the judge the day of sentencing from the police station). All others reported their VIS had been read aloud in court the day of sentencing (by either themselves or Victim Services).

Were you questioned by the Defence/Did you know the Defence lawyer might question you?

Not all participants were aware that the Defence/offender would get a copy of the statement once it is handed in. About half of the participants indicated they knew; the others reported they had not been told. Many agreed this should be made clear to victims.

No one indicated being questioned by the Defence on their VIS. Although participants had strong objections to this, they indicated they would not have been deterred from completing their form had they known the offender would get a copy and/or that they could be questioned on their VIS.

In discussing this question, one respondent indicated that her understanding was that the VIS might also (once again) be considered at parole. Aside from one other participant, no one else knew of this possibility.

Reading the VIS aloud

Of the four participants who had submitted a VIS, two read their statements aloud in court. A third chose not to read her statement aloud (because of her emotional state) but a Victim Services person had read it on her behalf.

Only one respondent indicated she wanted to read her statement aloud, but was not permitted to do so. She indicated that the VIS was faxed over from the police station and read by the judge. She said that by then, the judge already had his mind made up as to what the sentence was going to be so it was “just a waste of time.” This respondent felt that her VIS had had little impact. The explanation provided by Victims Services for this error was that the program is new and the courts were not prepared, but that victims now have a to read their statements in court.

In response to this, another participant indicated that she was told that she had a legal to have her say, and that the choice of passing the statement to the judge or reading it herself was up to her.

Did the judge refer to your VIS in sentencing?

None of the participants indicated that the judge had referred to their VIS in sentencing. Opinions were mixed as to whether their VIS had had any impact on sentencing. Two felt that their VIS had made a difference. Two felt their statements had had little impact on sentencing.

Of those who reported an impact on sentencing, one participant (whose ex-husband had pleaded guilty and had plea-bargained his sentence prior the court date) indicated she had been asked by the prosecutor if she wanted to read the VIS or have it filed. She asked whether this would make a difference, and was told that a deal had already been “cut” but if she thought it would help her then to go ahead and do it. She did, and reported that the judge added extra conditions to the sentence as a result.

One respondent (who had not yet submitted her VIS) indicated she felt the idea of a VIS is wonderful. She just hoped that the judges and the lawyers will actually take it into consideration when sentencing.

Would you go through the process of completing a VIS again/Did you get anything positive out of the experience/Did you experience any frustrations?

All but one participant indicated they would go through the process again. This respondent (whose VIS was temporarily ‘lost’) indicated she had completely lost confidence in the system. She was obviously very frustrated by her experience and felt that her VIS had had little (if any) impact on sentencing. And, although she reported some benefits from writing it, she felt that the way it had been handled had taken way from anything positive she might have felt.

Most others, however, were quite positive about the process. Many agreed that it had served a therapeutic purpose. Several participants mentioned that it had allowed them to vent their anger. One participant reported it had allowed her to confront the accused in a safe environment.

What would have made the process better/easier for you?

One respondent mentioned the VIS was not enough; that she needed to meet with the offender face to face. Others in the group indicated this could be offered as an option to victims; that there is a need on the victims’ part to understand why this person did what he/she did.

Another in the group had lost faith in the police, the courts, 911, everything. This respondent felt completely wronged by the system: “to top it all off you write a VIS and it gets filed and no one reads it you know what that made me feel like, not very good.” This respondent was so disillusioned she had nothing to say about what could have made the process easier.

One respondent noted that the legislation is in place to allow people to have a voice, but everything else also has to be in place. The feeling was that if you are going to empower victims then victims’ s should be of central consideration: “VIS are powerful, but only if the system enforces what they have created.” Those who felt let down by the system (in general) agreed.

One respondent indicated that sometimes it is as if no one cares but Victim Services. The system has to work together to take a closer look at the victim. She recommended better integration of services.

A guarantee that the statement is going to be used was perceived as important, as well as being kept informed of new developments and exactly how the VIS is to be used (e.g., in sentencing or when a breach of probation occurs or at parole). One respondent indicated she would like to know whether the judges take the statements seriously (as seriously as the victims who write them).

Those who did go to court felt it was critical to have the support of Victim Services to provide assistance/guidance throughout the process and support on the day of sentencing. One participant noted she would never have gone through the process had it not been for that type of support. Another felt that these services should be more actively promoted in the community.