Victim Impact Statements: Weird Equality

victimimpactsThe Canadian federal Criminal Code states that victim impact statements (VIS) are to be used for “the purpose of determining the sentence to be imposed on an offender or whether the offender should be discharged.” Statements must be prepared in writing, according to procedures developed by the province. If the victim has died or is unable to produce a statement, any relative of the victim may do so.

An information guide published by the B.C. Attorney General’s Ministry instructs those completing a VIS to consider such questions as: “Do you feel fearful, vulnerable, helpless, violated, angry?”; “Has the crime affected your relationship with your partner, spouse, friends, family or colleagues?”; and “Do you have any physical discomfort or illnesses because of the crime?”

Chuck Cadman, Reform MP for Surrey North and deputy justice critic, is a strong supporter of the VIS program. “Victim impact statements only come in at the time of sentencing after you get a conviction,” he notes. “It gives the opportunity for victims of an offence to say what the impact of the offence has been on them. They’re not designed to recommend what a sentence should be.”

The MP admits that not everyone support this sentencing tool. “I know some lawyers say they shouldn’t be allowed, they sway judges,” says Mr. Cadman, who co-founded Crime, Responsibility and Youth, a justice reform and victims’ rights group after his 16-year-old son’s murder in 1992. “I’ve always maintained there has to be a balance. Right now everything is tilted in favour of the accused or the convicted person. All victims have ever asked for is a voice in the system. No victims are looking for any kind of veto over the system or to determine the direction of the system.” Currently, VIS are written by the victims and given to the court. Mr. Cadman says he has been lobbying for them to be given orally by the victims.

University of Calgary law professor Chris Levy agrees that VISs give victims a chance to “communicate their thoughts, feelings and concerns.” He adds, however, that “one of the troubles is the Criminal Code doesn’t give any clear indication of how they shall be used. All it says is judges shall consider them. If Parliament really wants judges to `consider’ victim impact statements, maybe Parliament would be so kind as to tell us what they mean by `consider.’

“You get into the difficult position of giving radically different sentences for what’s essentially the same sort of behaviour because different victims reacted differently,” Prof. Levy argues. “In the world of sexual assault, there have been very clear statements from very senior courts saying a prostitute can be just as sexually assaulted as a virgin.” In homicide cases, he declares, “A human life is a human life.”

Victoria lawyer Doug Christie is also critical of the program. “Normally you look at the accused, not the victim, to determine the appropriate penalty. The capacity to rehabilitate is determined by the character of the accused.” The character of the victim has no place in sentencing, he believes. “It matters not whether you rob a nice person or a bad person.”

Victim impact statements have far more impact than Mr. Christie would like. “It’s emotionalizing the law,” he argues. “In the long run, it will reduce sentences to popularity contests. Is the victim a relatively well liked, affable citizen of high esteem, or is he a person of less credibility and social standing than someone else, than the accused, say? The result is that the scale slides according to your status in society.”