Abstract graphic representing a speaker

Panel speakers reported the following significant reactions:

an added sense of life purpose;

a belief that panels would save lives;

a belief that they were changing peoples' attitudes and behaviors; and

an opportunity to vent their feelings.

panel speakers

Recruiting, screening, training, retaining, and acknowledging panel speakers is the responsibility of the Victim Impact Panel Coordinator.

research in brief

The research of Drs. Dorothy Mercer and Rosanne Lorden (Appendix Eleven) verifies that for most victims of impaired driving crashes, telling an audience of offenders about their victimization is a healthy and healing opportunity. Most speakers experience more overall well being than victims who do not speak, including life happiness and internal locus of control. They are less likely to continue being angry with the offender than non-speakers, and they experience lower levels of anxiety. They use fewer prescription medications for relaxation and sleep, and they report an increased sense of purpose in their lives after beginning to speak.

Caution must be exercised, however, to assure that the Victim Impact Panel program does no harm. Approximately 8% of the Mercer and Lorden research victims who had spoken on panels said they felt harmed, and pre and post-testing validated their self-reports. Because they had been pressured to speak before they were ready, their anger was re-triggered and they experienced increased anxiety and depression, manifested in sleep disturbances and mood changes. Being asked to speak burst the bubble of psychological protection from their traumas before they were ready. Some became extremely emotional as they began to speak, embarrassing themselves. Others found great discomfort in taking the lid off of suppressed anger. Physically and/or emotionally recovering victims need to keep their defenses intact until they are strong enough to experience their loss without the safety of the defenses.

selecting panel speakers

Victim Impact Panel Coordinators can generally identify potential speakers from within MADD chapters. Other sources are the Victim Witness program in the prosecutor's office, hospital chaplains or social workers, and other grassroots groups such as Parents of Murdered Children and Compassionate Friends. Probation officers may be able to identify potential speakers from interviews conducted with victims for pre-sentencing investigations or from assisting victims who requested help completing victim impact statements. Panel coordinators should join community victim coalitions and alert other coalition members of the need for panelists. A local reporter may be willing to do an article about the program and need for speakers. As a last resort, an ad for speakers may be placed in local newspapers.

Victims should be screened and selected to appear on a Victim Impact Panel based on four factors:

It is strongly suggested that victims do not speak on panels until their criminal justice cases are concluded. Talking publicly about a pending criminal case puts it at risk for defense strategies such as change of venue. In rare instances it might be appropriate to use someone even before their criminal case is resolved, but ALWAYS seek the input of the prosecuting attorney before allowing someone whose case is unresolved to participate!

Panel speakers must be able to tell their story and express themselves using "I" statements. Speakers who use "you" statements to the audience as in, "you people," or "you should . . ." may not be appropriate for panels.

To help determine readiness for panel participation, Dr. Dorothy Mercer developed a simple screening tool (Appendix Twelve) for potential victim speakers. If more than one item on the questionnaire is answered at the highest score, or if three or more questions are answered above the midpoint, the panel coordinator should discuss readiness with the victim. Be especially concerned if their answer to the medication question is "more than 2 or 3 times" or "more days than not." If the victim indicates a need for that level of medication to control stress, the panel program would put him or her at additional risk for stress. Gently counsel him or her that care for self is more important than providing the service of panel participation. Tell him or her that you feel speaking at this time might be more harmful than helpful but that he or she may be more ready at a later time. Be cautious, however, about an unequivicable "no" that could feel to some like a revictimization.

If a victim whose scores are of concern insists on speaking, give him or her the Guidelines for Speakers (Appendix Thirteen) and ask that they prepare their presentation for you. After the presentation, ask how they felt speaking in that setting. If they still want to speak and you are certain that their presentation is useful and within guidelines, continue to carefully monitor their participation.

Finally, although the criminal records of offenders are public information, it is prudent for panel speakers to limit offender information to details relevant to the crash and its aftermath. Victims are on the panel to talk about their own victimization, not about the offender.

Victims whose offenders were not prosecuted or were not convicted may still participate on a Victim Impact Panel. However, it is very important that all panelists stick to verifiable facts when describing the offender. Unless the offender was actually convicted of impaired driving, he or she should not be referred to as a "drunk (or impaired) driver." Independently verifiable statements such as, "the driver who hit me had a BAC of __, according to the police report," or "the driver was never tested but according to witnesses was seen throwing beer cans into the bushes after the crash," are acceptable.

The panel coordinator should interview all potential speakers to assure they are emotionally ready and appropriate for this experience. Victims should be invited to observe at least one panel program before they decide to participate. If the invitation comes from a current panel member, that panel member may wish to offer transportation to the potential speaker.

Statement from an offender on the Multnomah County, Oregon panel:

Speaking fills a void in me. Everybody probably thinks they could never live with themselves if they killed somebody. But the fact remains that you are human and you have to go on with your life. This is an opportunity to help my community and also help me inside to live with what I have done.

selection of offenders
and other speakers

Panels that include non-victim speakers are called Drunk Driving Impact Panels. This eliminates the possibility of an offender being construed as a victim. Offenders who have not completed their criminal justice sanctions generally should not be allowed to speak on a panel.

Offenders who have completed all facets of their sentence, who accept responsibility and are remorseful for what they did, and are eager to speak about how their crash affected their lives can be effective panel members. Victims are generally resentful of offenders who attempt to aggrandize themselves on panels. If an offender is being considered as a speaker, the panel coordinator should first contact the victims of the offender's crash to see if they approve of the offender's participation. Provided they approve, the coordinator will confirm that the offender has completed his or her criminal justice sanctions. In rare circumstances, this requirement may be waived if it can be shown that the offender will in no way materially or financially benefit from participation.

The panel coordinator will interview the offender to assess level of remorse, how the crash has changed the drinking and driving behavior of the offender, and his or her potential as a speaker. If the interview reveals that the offender may be appropriate, the offender should be asked to prepare a presentation and deliver it to the panel coordinator or to a group of victim panel members. If the coordinator and other victims who will be co-presenting with the offender are comfortable with the presentation, the offender should attend a panel presentation to assess his or her comfort level before proceeding. Some programs ask a judge to facilitate panels when an offender presents.

Offenders who have not yet completed their sentence can be encouraged to inquire again after completion. Offenders who are not remorseful or are not appropriate for some other reason can simply be told that the panel is unable to utilize them as a speaker.

Victim Impact Panels do NOT include educational components i.e., alcohol awareness, lectures, slide shows, etc. While a panel may be a component of a larger program that includes these elements, panels are made up only of speakers who share their personal stories.

Sometimes judges will order an offender, as part of his or her sentence, to speak on a Victim Impact Panel. You are never obligated to utilize an offender under these circumstances; simply contact the offender's probation officer and explain that you don't have speaking opportunities for this offender. Inappropriate offenders may courteously be told that they may be reconsidered when their sentences (including probation or parole) are completed. This prevents offenders from seeking any benefit, such as early release, by participating in the program.

Other effective speakers can include law enforcement officers, emergency medical personnel, and fire fighters. However, a panel presentation is not a lecture or an informational session. Its purpose is to present personal stories from the heart. For that reason, professional presentations by alcohol counselors, medical examiners, prosecuting attorneys and others whose focus is on practical consequences are not appropriate in a panel setting. Offenders may also be sentenced to attend classes of this nature but informational sessions are not part of effective Victim Impact Panel programs.

using visuals

Encourage panel speakers to bring visuals such as photographs and personal belongings. If crash or injury photos are used, be sure that they are not gruesome. Depending on the size of the audience, the panel coordinator may want to make arrangements to enlarge photos or show them electronically on a screen.

Gruesome photos and images may get a reaction from the audience but they don't change behavior. Do not use graphic visuals in panel presentations!

Personal items help make the story real and immediate. Decide how the items will be displayed. If items are to be passed through the audience, make sure that someone keeps an eye on them as they are being passed and that they are returned to the speaker. Fragile or valuable items should not be passed around. Photos and other paper mementos should be copies rather than originals and protected by plastic sleeves. Some panels create a display on a table that may be viewed after the panel.

Panels should never utilize horrific or gruesome photos or other visuals. Learning theory research clearly indicates that while most people have strong reactions to graphic images, the chance for attitude change and subsequent behavior change is actually reduced. Studies show that the ability to recall the particulars of a lesson that included graphic or shocking material is diminished.

guidelines and tips for speakers

Potential panelists should be given the Guidelines for Speakers. (Appendix Thirteen) They should then prepare their presentation for the panel coordinator who may offer support and suggest improvements. Sometimes it may be appropriate to videotape a presentation for critique. This practice, however, tends to intimidate speakers and should be used only when deemed necessary. It is not necessary that panelists be polished speakers. The most effective presentations are those simply spoken from the heart about honest feelings surrounding what happened.

speaker agreements

When a victim speaker or first responder speaker is ready to participate on a panel, he or she should sign a Speaker Agreement. Offenders should sign an Offender Speaker Agreement. It is recommended that these forms be re-issued at least annually. These forms are found in Appendix Fourteen and may be revised as needed.


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