Victim impact statements are written and/or oral statements that describe the impact a crime has had on the victim and those close to her or him. In a criminal justice system structured around the state and the defendant, victim impact statements offer a brief shift from the concerns of the parties to the effect of the crime on the person most directly harmed.
Generally presented during sentencing hearings, victim impact statements provide the crime victims a voice, allowing them to make the court—and, in some cases, the defendant—hear the effect the crime has had on their lives, including the way the crime has harmed their health, relationships, financial well-being, employment, housing, and other physical, emotional, and practical concerns. Victim impact statements are also often used at parole hearings and at any other reconsideration of sentencing. Written victim impact statements are often filed with the state’s attorney general, prosecutors, or other officials and are included in the presentence investigation report or other official report.
Every state provides for some form of victim impact statement, as does federal law. Some states make victim impact statements available only to victims of specific crimes, such as sexual assault, kidnapping, and other crimes involving death or bodily injury. Others permit all crime victims the opportunity to provide victim impact statements. The victim impact statements may be oral or written. Some states offer a mechanism for statements to be taped in advance and played in court, to be read by a third party, or to be conducted from a remote location and broadcast in the courtroom.
Some state codes specifically enumerate the types of information that may be included in victim impact statements. Others simply provide that the victim may describe the impact the crime has had on her or his life. In some instances, as is the practice in Michigan, victims are permitted to indicate their opinions regarding appropriate sentencing.
Additional differences in treatment exist on a state-by-state basis. For example, some states, such as Iowa, require the defendant be present at the delivery of the victim impact statement. The Iowa Code also specifically notes that the victim is not to be placed under oath or subjected to cross-examination at the sentencing hearing. Conversely, a small number of states may allow cross-examination, and others allow for the defendant to contest the assertions made in the victim impact statement.
Until 1991, victim impact statements were not admissible in death penalty cases. The Supreme Court held in Payne v. Tennessee (1991) that the admission of victim impact statements in criminal cases did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Some attorneys and legal scholars argue that victim impact statements are harmful, causing jurors to react emotionally rather than reasonably, and render individual defendants nonhuman. Many victims and victim advocates note that victim impact statements provide a perspective no one else can provide and that they offer victims an important opportunity to be heard.
- Bandes, S. (1996). Empathy, narrative, and victim impact statements. University of Chicago Law Review, 63, 361–412.
- Victim impact statement: Commonwealth of Virginia. (2000). Retrieved from https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/sites/dcjs.virginia.gov/files/publications/victims/victim-impact-statement-english.pdf
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