Sunday, November 25, 2007

Too Much Victim Impact?

Scott Greenfield wrote last week about the danger of allowing crime victims too much influence upon sentencing judges. Scott argued that victim impact had already been encompassed in sentencing schemes but the current "fad" in criminal justice was to allow victims to push for sentencing increases. Scott writes:
Built into the system is the consequence of criminal conduct. As much as the pain caused to victims and their families by crime is enormously personal, the anticipated outcome of crime is not a surprise. That's why it's a crime to begin with. We can expect victims to explain the personal impact with detail and emotion, but should victims have an independent right to push a court to use the statutory sentence as a baseline and increase the sentence based upon the desire and ability of victims to express their personal anguish?
The answer to this question is obviously no. In Texas, as part of punishment evidence, the victim can provide testimony about the impact of the crime subject to the rules of evidence. Furthermore, the victims of crime have a right to personally address the defendant and express their feelings about wrongs done to them, but only after the sentence has been imposed. I agree with Scott when he said:
The true nature of victim impact statements is to give victims the impression of having a role to play in the punishment of the perpetrators of crimes against them. It is cathartic, and helps victims to release the anger, frustration and even hatred so that they can move forward. This is a worthy purpose, and I have no argument against a defendant being forced to stand their and be confronted by their victim, taking whatever the victim wishes to give.
However, over the years I've noticed victims having greater and greater impact upon the decisions made by prosecutors. In particular, decisions about whether a prosecutor will offer to recommend a particular punishment outcome in exchange for a defendant's guilty plea. In Brazos County, Texas I've noticed victims having too much say in whether a particular offer will be made.

I understand the job of prosecutor is subject to the whims of the voting public since the position of district attorney is an elected one. But how long will the prosecutors allow victims to pull their strings, especially in high profile cases where public opinion is fueled by anger and hatred of the criminally accused? In routine cases I find this victim impact less troubling. Only when the case frequents the front page, above the fold, do the state's attorneys buckle to victim and community pressure.

Like judges, prosecutors need to maintain a professional detachment from the whims, emotions, and hatred of victims. This detachment is a necessary component of a prosecutor's charge of seeking justice in every case.

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