Promote accountability and enhance access to services through the enforcement of victims’ rights
In the early 1980s, all 50 states and the federal government began to adopt laws and constitutional amendments recognizing that victims and survivors have their own distinct interests in criminal justice proceedings.1 These legal changes included establishing the right for victims and survivors to make victim impact statements at sentencing and to be informed of release decisions.
Victim impact statements often represent the only chance victims and survivors will have to describe how they were hurt by the actions of their perpetrator. Likewise, these statements are typically the only opportunity for people who engaged in serious and violent crime to hear directly from their victims and survivors about the harm that they caused. As such, while victim impact statements are not exclusive to cases involving long prison sentences, they have a special role in promoting accountability in cases of serious crime and violence.
Similarly, the right to be informed about release decisions is intended to give victims and survivors access to information that directly affects their sense of safety and well-being. Just as importantly, it provides the criminal justice system an opportunity to ensure that victims and survivors receive the services and support they need.
While these rights and duties are universal throughout the U.S., there is no model policy that guides their use or enforcement.2 Likewise, there is little research dedicated to assessing the laws and policies that are best equipped to realize the goals of Victim Impact Statements.3 There is even less research on how jurisdictions can most effectively ensure victims are notified of release decisions, and the impacts of such processes.4
The Task Force finds that the right to make victim impact statements and to be notified of release decisions provides a critical opportunity to hear directly from victims and survivors about what they need to heal. In listening to victims and survivors, criminal justice professionals, legislators, and policymakers can learn how to best address their needs.
The Task Force on Long Sentences convened nine listening sessions to gather input from victims and survivors of crime as well as close relatives of people serving long sentences and individuals who served long prison sentences themselves.
The Task Force thus recommends that states and federal authorities evaluate their victim impact statements and notification systems to ensure that they are enforcing victims’ rights and fulfilling their purpose of treating victims with fairness, dignity, sensitivity, and respect.
State and federal policymakers should support assessments of their jurisdictions’ victim impact system to ensure that victims and survivors are provided with a meaningful opportunity to inform sentencing decisions and have timely access to information about release decisions and services.
The Department of Justice and relevant state agencies should sponsor research into existing court- and parole-based victim impact statements, assessing their strengths and weaknesses and outlining recommendations to improve law, policy, and practice. Research questions should include:
- What are the explicit goals of states’ victim impact statements? Do victim impact statement policies and procedures achieve their stated goals?
- Do victim impact statements influence sentencing and parole decisions? If so, how?
- How do victim impact statements affect victims’ and survivors’ healing and satisfaction with the outcome in their case?
- How do victim impact statements affect victims’ and survivors’ perceptions of fairness, accountability, and the court system’s legitimacy?
- How do victim impact statements affect the reoffending rates of people serving long sentences, and their sense of accountability, the harm their actions have caused, and the need to change?
- What factors influences victims’ and survivors’ choice to make—or refrain from making—a victim impact statement?
Legislatures, sentencing courts, and paroling authorities should ensure that victim impact statements give victims and survivors adequate opportunity to inform sentencing based on factors such as:
- How the crime affected the individual victim or survivor and their family
- Emotional/psychological impact of the crime
- Physical impact of the crime
- Financial impact of the crime
- Social impact of the crime
- Spiritual impact of the crime
- Concerns about their safety and security
- Desire to participate in restorative justice programming to promote accountability
- The victim’s or survivor’s desire to be notified about the status and outcome of the case
- Additional informational the victim or survivor would like to provide the court regarding what happened to them, what has happened since the crime took place, and how the crime affected them and their family
Court systems and agencies funding state and federal victim and survivor services should explore ways to connect victims and survivors of serious crimes to their own individual advocate to help them decide whether they want to make a victim impact statement and understand what to expect from the sentencing process.
State and federal authorities should conduct regular surveys of victims and survivors to gather basic demographic information (e.g., race, gender, age, and region) and ask about their perceptions of the sentencing experience. These data should be used by system stakeholders to address negative aspects of the process and strengthen positive aspects associated with fairness, respect, trust, and legitimacy.
Sentencing courts, criminal justice agencies, government grant-makers, and victims’ services administrators should increase efforts to educate victims and survivors who are impacted by long sentences about victim information and notification programs.
Sentencing courts and criminal justice agencies should ensure that they offer victims and survivors who are impacted by long sentences opportunities to opt into victim notification programs, ideally at sentencing, and that they do not require victims and survivors to re-enroll in such programs if there are changes in the custody or facility placement of the person serving the long sentence.
Victim notification program administrators should provide notice of the actual release date to victims and survivors who are impacted by long sentences as soon as it is feasible to release such information.
Victim notification program administrators should ensure that victims are provided with contact information for available victims’ and survivors’ services, including available counseling and safety planning support.
State and federal authorities should support data collection and evaluation of notification systems, exploring:
- Victims’ and survivors’ satisfaction with the notification processes
- Recommendations to strengthen notifications to promote fairness, respect, trust, and legitimacy
- Whether and how often victims and survivors access notifications or supportive services, including examination of demographic or other differences in engagement
- Demographic data including race, gender, age, relationship to the offender, and other factors