Victims of Crime Research Series
Summary Report on Victim Impact Statement Focus Groups
3. OVERVIEW AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The aim of the exploratory research conducted for this report was to identify and understand victims’ issues and concerns with Victim Impact Statements. As summarized in the preceding section, the participants in these six focus groups were generally very positive in their views regarding most aspects of their experience with VISs. They typically:
- were provided with clear information about VISs by victim service programs;
- were given sufficient time, and any help needed to complete their statements;
- expressed few, if any, concerns about the privacy aspects of completing a VIS;
- reported that their statements were rarely modified by anyone else, once submitted;
- accepted the need for their statements to be provided to defence counsel and, by extension, to the accused;
- supported victims being offered the opportunity to present their statements orally; and,
- were effusive in their praise of the Provincial Victim Services they dealt with in preparing their statements.
Aspects of their experience with VISs with which the focus group participants were less satisfied were:
Restrictions on their latitude to suggest potential conditions of sentence in their Victim Impact Statements. Many participants wanted to include suggestions for specific conditions of sentence as part of their statements. Some were successful in doing so. For the most part, however, suggestions of this nature were not permitted. Some participants who wished to include these types of suggestions, but were prevented from doing so, acknowledged that the Prosecutor had reflected their wishes, to varying degrees, in his or her submissions prior to sentencing. In these circumstances, a more explicit role for the Prosecutor in making these suggestions might reduce victims’ frustration with the restrictions they encountered in preparing their statements. On a related note, it may be that victims with some prior connection to the accused (e.g., ex-spouse) may have both a greater interest in specific conditions of sentence (e.g., anger management for reasons of their personal safety) and legitimate knowledge of factors which may contribute to the criminal behaviour of the accused.
Abrupt guilty pleas and early preparation of VIS. Some victims were advised to retain possession of their statements until immediately prior to sentencing. (Editor’s Note: This advice was offered because the victim impact statement is only for the purposes of sentenceing and once submitted to the court or crown, the crown would be required to disclose the statement to the Defence immediately). The downside to this strategy was that when a guilty plea is entered, and sentencing thus follows immediately, the victim has to scramble to submit a statement. In some circumstances, this may be difficult to accomplish. In some locations, it would appear that Provincial Victim Services are able to hold onto statements which have been given to them until sentencing (at which time the statements are also available to the defence).
Plea bargains . Some group participants reported considerable frustration with the court process when sentences were imposed which they perceived to have been negotiated prior to submission of their VISs. In these cases, they were confident that no account had been taken of their experiences as victims, and resented the system’s seeming disregard for the effort which went into preparing their VISs.
Acknowledgement by judges of VISs. Given the uncertainty expressed by some participants as to what happens to their statements after they are submitted, it is particularly important to them that the judge, in some way, signal that their statement has been received and read. Some participants described such acknowledgement as ‘validating’ the effort and emotion which they put into their statements. Furthermore, it is seen as significant, even if the sentence imposed does not obviously reflect the contents of the statements.
Opportunities for victims to respond to comments and questions from defence counsel about their statements. Participants who presented their statements orally reported varying experiences in terms of the defence’s response to their statements. Some reported that they “gave as good as they got.” Others felt very aggrieved at the treatment given their statements by defence counsel. This was especially true for victims who were not permitted to reply to the defence’s comments. They thought that defence should have no to contradict their statements, because no one knows the effect of the crime better than they do . Some thought that once the accused had been found guilty, such legal manoeuvring should end. Or, at least, the victims should be permitted to respond orally to defence counsel’s attacks on their statements.
The general findings from the focus group discussions reported here is that most victims are positive in their assessments of victim impact statements as vehicles for victims to be heard by the court. There was also the thought that victim impact statements may influence sentencing. In reviewing these findings, however, readers should recognize some limitations on their generality. These limitations reflect the following aspects of the way in which group participants were recruited:
- only individuals who actually completed a VIS were candidates for the groups;
- of those who completed statements, only those identified to us by Provincial Victim Services were asked to participate;
- of those asked to participate, not all could be reached or agreed to participate; and,
- of those who agreed to participate, not all attended a group.
In effect, the process to recruit participants excluded victims who:
- did not complete a VIS;
- completed a VIS, but were not willing to participate in a group;
- were willing, but could not attend for some reason; and,
- were not emotionally strong enough to participate.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the group characteristics was the predominance of women, many of whom were victims of crimes committed by intimates and, to a lesser degree, parents of children either abused or killed by others.
In light of the potential selection bias noted above, the predominance of female victims, especially victims of family violence raises the question of whether or not women are generally over-represented among victims who complete victim impact statements. Many factors might account for this finding including the possibilities that:
- women may be more likely than men to see some benefit in preparing a VIS;
- female victims of family violence may have a greater interest in the sentence imposed on their ex-spouse than would victims of crimes committed by strangers whom they may never see again; and,
- men may be less likely to want to expose their feelings about their experience as victims than are women.
As a first step in addressing these questions, it would be useful to examine data on the general profile of people who complete Victim Impact Statements in the context of what is known about the characteristics of crime victims more generally. Data profiling victims who complete victim impact statements would have to come from Provincial Victim Services responsible for providing information on VISs to victims, or perhaps more centrally from provincial Ministries of Justice/Attorneys-General. Data on the more general characteristics of crime victims could be acquired from existing or future victimization surveys.
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