Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How important is sentencing to victims?

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of topics that generate some thoughtful discussion. Other questions I plan to pose include whether victim services are effective in helping victims, are victims better off not participating in the justice system, what does victim satisfaction with the justice system really mean, the evolution of grassroots victims' groups, etc. Each topic could be a thesis paper on its own, but I hope to summarize some of the research and popular views out there. I welcome any other suggestions for topics.

Sentencing is a hot topic in Canada right now. There are a number of bills before Parliament that will result in tougher sentences for many offenders. The government says they are doing this, in part, for victims. There are differing opinions on the value of the bills...most of the academic research says the approach will not make the public safer but supporters say tougher sentences are needed to stop dangerous offenders from re-offending. I want to look at sentencing solely from a victim satisfaction level - do tougher sentences result in higher levels of victim satisfaction?

If you read the papers and watch the news, you would think the answer would be yes. Its not hard to find a victim who is upset about what they perceive is a lenient sentence. Victims groups are often standing with the government as they introduce tougher sentencing legislation.

But as is often the case with justice issues, the research tells a different story. Most of the research I have seen (which is admittedly not all of it) suggests that sentencing is not as important to victims as many people assume it is. For many victims, the process seems to be more important than the outcome.

By process, I mean the investigation and prosecution. If victims feel they were engaged in the process (i.e. kept informed by police and victim services, met the Crown, had decisions explained to them, were able to give opinion and were listened to), they say they were satisfied even if the outcome (i.e. sentence) was not what they might have expected going into it. One of the things that affect the satisfaction of victims who do impact statements is whether the judge acknowledges them and their statement in his/her remarks. It is important for some to know the judge understood their statement. (NOTE - I use the term satisfaction carefully because the justice system is not going to make victims happy or heal them. More to come on this later).

On the other hand, if victims are not kept informed, do not have decisions like plea bargains explained, etc., they are more likely to focus to the sentence as the measure of how serious the system considered the crime. And the sentence alone rarely meets the expectations.

This is not to say that sentencing does not matter. Victims expect offenders to be held accountable. One of the problems though is that the criminal justice system is a complex beast that doesn't always make sense to us "outsiders." Decisions are made about a host of issues that without proper explanation seem to defy logic. There are usually explanations for these decisions. They may not not always be good ones or what the victims want to hear, but it helps to at least understand why a decision has been taken.

Sentencing is really complicated. Judges are guided by various principles, including trying to deter the offender from doing this again and deter others from doing this, rehabilitating the offender, punishing the offender, making the offender accountable for the harm caused to the victim, etc. Judges are also bound by sentences given out for similar crimes.

For many crimes, like sexual assault, the maximum sentence is 10 years but there is no minimum. How does a victim, who knows the max is 10 years, come to terms with the fact that the offender only gets 12 months if no one explains it to her. In this situation, the sentence could re-victimize her and make her wonder why she even bothered putting herself through this process. But, if the police had been responsive to her needs, victim services was able to provide information, the Crown took the time to explain what might happen and the judge acknowledged her pain, she might feel quite different. Research shows that victims are not more punitive than non-victims.

I have dealt with victims who were very upset at the sentence, but usually the sentence was part of a long list of complaints they had. I don't recall too many cases where victims, who were treated really well and had all their needs met, complain about a sentence. That is not to say it does not happen or that there are not victims whose satisfaction is directly tied to the sentence.

I think we should be careful putting too much emphasis on the sentence when it comes to victims, both in raising their expectations that if we just gave the offender the magic number, they would be happy, and in letting politicians and those in the system off the hook by not doing all the other things that victims need.

And yes, I realize that the choice of this topic excludes the majority of victims who choose not the report the crime to police and all the cases that are reported but never make it to the prosecution stage or result in an acquittal.


  1. This raises a number of related questions.

    If the victim was represented and could participate in the process as in JS´s memoire at UOttawa and my book coming out in November, they may look not just for justice but also reparation and safety. Also if they were represented and participated as in France, the ICC and Japan, they would not be ignored.

    Most victims reporting to police expect either prevention or reparation - only a few want punishment. Most victims will never get near a sentencing hearing - most parliamentary debate about victims should be about policing (and services which police could inform them about), not judging.

  2. The sentence an offender receives is the only way we have to measure "justice". The offender is offered all sorts of programs and services to help them return to society as a productive member. The services offered to victims is none to limited. I just attended a parole hearing for the man who murdered my son. I learned that he has had 40 face to face sessions with a psychiatrist and still shows little to no insight into why he committed the crimes he did. For some the knowledge that the offender will not be freed to harm another person is important. But equally important is the recognition of the harm he has done in other ways than just sentence reflection. The Parole Board acknowledged and addressed with the offender every issue I raised in my victim statement. I felt that what I had to say mattered. I was heard and acknowledged. I have been to other Parole hearings with victim presence and statements and the Parole Board did not address even one of the issues raised, leaving the victims feeling like not one thing they had to say mattered. I believe the outcome is important, but equally if not more important is LISTENING to the victim and acknowledging the harm and giving the victim accurate information.

  3. The Victim Statement is something that is shared with the offender as is all information the Board considers in their decision. The very least the Parole Board could do is ask the offender how he feels about hearing what the impact of his crimes had on other people. I have been to hearings with victim statements and not even that question was asked. I also think it would be helpful for victims if the "professional" accompanying them to the hearing was someone well trained in victim issues. Maybe even someone that is not in the regular employ of the NPB. The victim is allowed to have a support person, but all too often that support person is a good friend or relative and not that well versed in the "process". If the victim's professional accompaniment was a trained counsellor of victims service worker, someone who was not "stymied" by job position in what they were allowed to say. I believe that it would help the victim to feel that they were important enough to merit some personal attention and not just part of someone's job. I am sure it is not true in all cases, but in my case, the person employed by NPB that accompanied myself and my support person to the hearing gave us the impression that she thought she was "babysitting" us.

  4. me again. :). People who are trained to deal with offenders are not necessarily the best candidates to deal with the victims. There are different issues involved. I remember one person I was trying to deal with who had control issues and I had to tell her to back off and stop treating me as if I'm on parole and she was my parole officer. :)

  5. Marjean, we need to talk!

    The NPB seems to have realized that it's at the end of a long chain of abuse of victims by the legal system and that they need to find a way to deal with us or it's going to get ugly. They are trying, but haven't yet solved the problem.

    We've been lucky enough to have Steve accompany us to two parole hearings and without him to complain to, to joke and be sarcastic with and to have the wisdom of his experience and support, we were left to the NPB workers, who tended to treat us as if we were alien beings.

    Back to Steve's original question about sentencing - yes, it's very important, but the jury's 1st degree murder verdict had the most impact for me. Finally, somebody official said, "Your son did not deserve to be murdered. This was a vicious, brutal and senseless crime. We stand with you."

    So many crime victims never get to hear from a jury but they deserve to have the damage done to them acknowledged.

    Isn't it telling how much we are paying to keep world leaders safe, but we can't keep abused women safe, or children safe from sexual predators? And how easily our civil rights are discarded in the name of 'security' for the G8 and G20 but the 'rights' of our son's murderer trump everyone's?

    Enough for now, I could go on forever. . .