We should examine the merits of introducing victim impact statements in court

Dear Editor,

The recent observations by the Director of Public Prosecutions followed by comments from other high officials may indeed serve as the needed catalyst to move the Guyana Police ‘Service’ to a higher level of performance in the criminal justice system from the investigative and prosecutorial standpoints.  However, during my brief hiatus from the keyboard I came across a novel (at least for Guyana) contribution to the whole scenario of criminal prosecutions.  I am referring to the intervention called ‘victim impact statements’ (VIS) which put the victim’s perspective in the spotlight before the court.

VIS first appeared in the United States during the 1970s as the primary means by which crime victims provided input into the sentencing process.  As early as 1982, the final report on the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime’s issued a recommendation that called for “judges to allow for, and give appropriate weight to, input at sentencing from victims of violent crime.”  The then Attorney General endorsed the use of victim impact statements by stating that judges should, “Provide for hearing and considering the victims’ perspective at sentencing and at any early release proceedings.”  The concept was introduced in Canada in 1988 and is now an important component of the sentencing process.

Editor we hear ad nauseam of the rights of victims in response to outcries about the right to a fair trial for the accused, particularly when fatalities occur at the hands of the police.  But we need to ask, what are we doing to ensure that the victims’ rights are protected?  Or put another way, can we really say that we empathise with the victims of crime when we really have not provided them with the avenues to be heard apart from giving evidence as virtual complainants?  Maybe we need to examine the merits of VIS in the little space available in these columns.  I wish to make it clear that this offering does not by any means intend to differentiate between serious crime and other types/categories but refers to crime generally.

One important lesson learned in the Canadian experience is that the mere introduction of a VIS regime has not resulted in widespread use of the statements, since only a minority of victims seem inclined to be part of the process.  However, for the minority of victims who do submit a statement, the VIS provides an important outlet for expressing themselves to the court and participating in the sentencing process.  However, the most obvious criticism of the VIS is that it can have an adverse effect on crime victims who are disappointed when they feel that their participation has not brought about some preconceived result at sentencing.  Therefore those tasked with the responsibility must ensure that they provide crime victims with a clear idea of the purpose of the VIS.  We read constantly of victims of crime being unaware of the status of investigations, etc, but as early as 1981, researchers, mental health practitioners and criminal justice professionals recognized that victims who receive information about their criminal cases and are allowed to have an input into the criminal justice process have a higher degree of satisfaction with the justice process, and experience a higher degree of closure in relation to their victimization.

In much the same way that a pantheon of experts is sometimes called upon to supply all sorts of plausible reasons why a defendant felt pressured to commit a crime, it is only fair that the victims (or their survivors like Mothers in Black, etc) be given the opportunity to have a more significant role in criminal justice proceedings.  Therefore, it might be a good idea to explore the possibilities of drafting legislation and policies which give crime victims a strong and active voice through the use of VIS.  In that regard, the authorities (if they are so inclined) would be required to draft comprehensive guidelines, protocol and model victim impact statement instruments to address the needs of both the justice system and the victim.  These instruments could be designed for specific audiences including police, judiciary, parole board, etc.  This will serve to show that we are all listening to the victims of crime, and demonstrating an awareness that crimes impact not only the direct victims, but to a greater degree our communities in general.

Yours faithfully,
Patrick E Mentore