Promising Sentencing Practice No. 7
Victim Impact Panels
By: Judge Greg Donat (Indiana)
Judges presiding over DWI cases have teamed with community groups to
develop victim impact panels as an additional sentencing practice. Community groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving are often responsible for organizing and presenting the program, and the court’s staff is responsible for assigning and monitoring the defendants’ attendance. Victim impact panels have been successful in reducing DWI recidivism74 through emotional appeals designed to change DWI offenders’ attitudes toward drinking and driving by illustrating the real impact
of DWI crashes.
What Is a Victim Impact Panel?
Victim impact panels are groups of three or four speakers who have been seriously injured, or who have lost a friend or family member, in a crash caused by an impaired driver. Panel members present their personal stories to a group of DWI offenders that does not include their own offender. Offenders are ordered by the court to attend a victim impact panel as a condition of their probation. Panels are held at regular intervals, usually biweekly or monthly.
Most victim impact panel programs contain an introduction, three or four victim’s stories, and a conclusion. The victims describe, in very personal terms, the effect on their lives of being seriously injured, or losing a friend or family member, in a crash caused by an impaired driver. The goal is to influence DWI offenders on an emotional level to change their attitudes about drinking and driving, and thus reduce the likelihood of re-offending.
Victim impact panels can help put a “human face” on the tragic consequences of DWI. They can raise empathy, allowing offenders to put themselves in the place of people harmed by impaired drivers. They can also change the offenders’ focus from feeling sorry for themselves for having been caught, to the actual human consequences of
Tips for Using Victim Impact Panels
The introduction of the program should emphasize that the victim impact panel program is not intended to be confrontational. Instead, the program should assist offenders in making better decisions in future situations. Attendees should be informed that the program’s purpose is not to accuse or degrade them, but to help them understand that they are responsible for the consequences of their decisions to drink and drive. It is also important that the presenters understand the purpose of the victim panels. At the completion of each session, the offenders should complete evaluation forms that ask them to focus on how the victim information will affect their future decision-making about drinking and driving.
Selecting Victim Presenters
The victim presenters must be selected and prepared carefully. It is appropriate to wait until the civil and criminal proceedings are complete before a victim is asked to be a presenter. Victims generally find that the process of preparing and delivering their stories is extremely emotional. Consequently, the program managers must ensure that the victims have had sufficient time to work through their grieving processes, and if necessary with professional assistance, before engaging in the program. To describe their personal tragedies is to relive them and can be very emotionally difficult. The staff must be extremely sensitive to selecting and preparing participants. Due to the very personal emotional commitment, most victims choose to present only a few times.
Live Versus Videotaped Presentations
Since it is emotionally and personally draining, it is not always possible to arrange for live presentations. Some courts use live presentations a few times per year while some courts use videotaped presentations more frequently. Because live presentations are much more powerful than videotaped presentations, they should be used to the extent possible. Program managers may need to balance audience size with the nature of the victims and their abilities to speak in front of large and small groups.
Benefit to Victims and Offenders
Many victims have positive reactions to their participation. Although it can be both physically and emotional draining, it can be a way to openly express their grief. Many victims say that if they feel that they can do something to stop impaired driving, it will give some meaning to their personal losses and suffering. On some occasions, offenders have also made presentations to describe how their lives were tragically affected by their bad choices to drink and drive.
Effectiveness of Victim Impact Panels
The following studies have measured the effectiveness of victim impact panels:
- A study that examined the effect of victim impact panels in an eight county, tri-state region of the southwestern United States found that the recidivism rate for offenders who attended a victim impact panel was half that of offenders who did not do so. The offenders who did not attend a victim impact panel also recidivated sooner than offenders who attended a panel.75
- A larger study conducted in Clackamas County, Oregon, found that DWI offenders who did not attend a victim impact panel were more than three times more likely to be re-arrested within the first year compared to those offenders who had attended a panel.76
- A study conducted in an urban/suburban county in the southeastern United States found that participation in a victim impact panel reduced the likelihood of being re-arrested for DWI by 65 percent within the first year after the panel. Those whose re-arrest records were most significantly affected were white men, ages 26-35, with one prior DWI arrest. Logistic regression was used to compare the importance of specific independent variables on re-arrest. Whether or not a subject attended a victim impact panel was found to be the most powerful predictor of re-arrest.77
Many judges who have used victim impact panels for DWI offenders have seen the positive results expressed by Judge Paul Bonin of the New Orleans Traffic Court:
- Offenders consistently inform me that the Victim Impact Panel is the single component of our sentence that causes them to appreciate the seriousness of drunk driving and helps them to resolve never to drink and drive again. Listening to the victims is an emotional experience for most offenders and diminishes any feelings that they may have had of being ‘victimized’ by the criminal justice system.78
A number of States have laws giving judges authority to order DWI offenders to attend a victim impact panel. These States include Connecticut, Indiana, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin.