The Alliance has compiled a number of resources available for survivors, their friends and families, and professionals assisting survivors in New York City.
Factsheets: Victim Impact Statements
The term "victim impact statement" refers to written or oral information about the impact of the crime on the victim and the victim's family. Victim impact statements are most commonly used at sentencing. Such statements provide a means for the court to refocus its attention, at least momentarily, on the human cost of the crime. They also provide a way for the victim to participate in the criminal justice process. The right to make an impact statement generally is extended beyond the direct victim to homicide survivors, the parent or guardian of a minor victim, and the guardian or representative of an incompetent or incapacitated victim.
In a recent survey by the National Center for Victims of Crime, over 1300 victims were asked to rate the importance of various legal rights. Over 80% stated that their ability to make a victim impact statement at sentencing and at parole was "very important."(1)
Every state allows some form of victim impact information at sentencing. The majority of states allow both oral and/or written statements from the victim at the sentencing hearing, and require victim impact information to be included in the pre-sentence report. As of 1997, 44 states and the District of Columbia allow information about the impact of the offense(s) on the victim to be included as part of the pre-sentence report; every state allows victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing, and 47 of them allow oral statements at sentencing. (All statutes discussed in this summary are current through 1997 unless otherwise indicated. Source: National Center for Victims of Crime, Legislative Database.)
At the federal level, victim impact information is to be included in the pre-sentence report. In addition, as part of the Federal Crime Act of 1994, Congress gave federal victims of violent crime or sexual assault the right to speak at sentencing. Through the Child Protection Act of 1990, child victims of federal crimes are allowed to submit victim impact statements in measures which are "commensurate with their age and cognitive development," which could include drawings, models, etc.
Victim impact statements usually describe the harm the offense has had on the victim, including descriptions of the financial, physical, psychological or emotional impact, harm to familial relationships, descriptions of any medical treatments or psychological services required by the victim or the victim's family as a result of the victimization, and the need for any restitution. State law might list the elements to be included in the statement, or it may simply permit a "description of the impact of the offense." In addition, many states allow the victim to state his or her opinion about the appropriate sentence.
Along with victim impact statements at sentencing, the majority of states also permit victim input at the parole hearing of the offender. To provide such input, the victim is usually required to maintain a current address on file with the parole board, the prosecutor's office, or some identified criminal justice agency.
In a number of states, the original victim impact statement that was prepared for the sentencing hearing is included in an incarcerated offender's file by corrections and paroling authorities, and reviewed as part of the parole process. A number of states also invite victims to submit an updated impact statement which can include any evidence of communication they may have received from the offender or the offender's associates since sentencing, as well as any other new or updated information concerning the crime's impact on the victim (such as additional physical therapy, surgeries, etc., or continued psychological impact and/or treatment).
Less frequently, victims have input into bail hearings, pretrial release hearings, plea bargain hearings, and other proceedings. Georgia allows victims to submit an impact statement which shall be attached to the file and may be used by the prosecutor or court in making decisions at any stage of the proceedings involving predisposition, plea agreements, sentencing, or determination of restitution.
Generally, the law specifies that victim impact statements may be oral or written, but in several states the statement may also be made by means of videotape, audiotape, or other electronic means. Such flexibility in the form of the impact statement can be particularly beneficial for victims who wish to give input to a parole board, as the victim may live hundreds of miles from the facility where a parole hearing is held. Several states also allow child victims to submit drawings to describe the impact a crime has had on their lives.
The right to present victim impact information, whether written or oral, is usually guaranteed by law. However, some states leave the matter in the discretion of the judge or other officials (such as the parole board). While the laws do not always ensure that the victim impact statement will do more than allow victims a chance to express themselves, many states specifically require the court or board ruling on the offender's status to consider the victim's statements in making its decision.
In most states, a defendant has the right to contest assertions made in the victim impact statement. This is most often limited to objecting to factual statements in the statement. In a few states, the defendant or defense counsel may have the right to cross-examine the victim about the impact statement.
Until recently, victim impact statements were held inadmissible in cases where the death penalty was sought. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in Payne v. Tennessee (1991) reversed its earlier ruling and found that the admission of victim impact statements in capital cases did not violate the Constitution. A few states continue to prohibit the use of victim impact statements in death penalty cases.
For more information about the use of victim impact statements in your state, contact your local prosecutor's office, your state Attorney General's office, or your local law library.
Alexander, Ellen and Janice Harris Lord. (1994). Impact Statements -- A Victim's Right to Speak... A Nation's Responsibility to Listen. National Center for Victims of Crime. Arlington, VA.
Hillenbrand, Susan and Barbara Smith. (1989). Victims' Rights Legislation: An Assessment of Its Impact on Criminal Justice Practitioners and Victims, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: American Bar Association.
Kennard, Karen. (1989). "The Victim's Veto: A Way to Increase Victim Impact on Criminal Case Dispositions." California Law Review, 77(2): 417.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (1996). Statutory and Constitutional Protection of Victims' Rights: Implementation and Impact on Crime Victims, Final Report. Arlington, VA.
National Center for Victims of Crime. (1996). The 1996 Victims' Rights Sourcebook: A Compilation and Comparison of Victims' Rights Laws. Arlington, VA.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1999 by the National Center for Victims of Crime. This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice.
Alliance staff make signs for the 2011 Rally to Take Rape Seriously