Home / From the files of Police Squad — Victim Impact Statements

From the files of Police Squad — Victim Impact Statements

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From The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear:

Commissioner Anabell Brumford: I would like now to introduce a most distinguished gentleman. This week he is being honored for his one 1000th drug dealer killed. Ladies and gentleman please welcome Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad.

Lt. Frank Drebin: In all honesty the last two I backed over with my car. Luckily they turned out to be drug dealers.

This gag from the second (and I think the best) of the Naked Gun movies has been tumbling around in my head since the memorial for the fallen Mounties.

I know it would appear to be inappropriate, but there is a reason, and if you bear with me, it’ll become clear.

I was thinking about the man who shot these brave officers, James Roszko, and how, if he had survived the ambush he had set, what he would have been facing now. At the very least, the ceremony yesterday would have constituted the mother of all Victim Impact Statements. You see, in Canada, as in all US jurisdictions, we recognize the use of Victim Impact Statements at sentencing:

Canadian legislation concerning Victim Impact Statements was proclaimed in force in October, 1988. Under Section 722 of the Criminal Code, a Victim Impact Statement allows victims to describe in writing the harm done to them or the loss suffered as a result of the crime. Originally, the statement could be considered by the court for the purpose of determining sentence; the court was not required to do so. Bill C-41 was proclaimed in force in September, 1996, requiring Victim Impact Statements to be considered by the court in sentencing. Initially, Victim Impact Statements were not admissible in youth court. In December, 1995, Bill C-37 was proclaimed in force, allowing VIS to be presented in youth court. All Victim Impact Statements are to be prepared in accordance with procedures established by the Lieutenant Governor in Council of each province.

In Alberta, information about the Victim Impact Statement program is provided to victims of crime by police services and victim assistance programs. “The Victim Impact Statement program provides victims in Alberta an opportunity to have input into sentencing by describing in writing to the courts how they have been affected by the crime” (Victims’ Programs Assistance Committee, 1997, p. 11).

Is this right?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

The problem with the VIS is that it is essentially additional evidence that is immune from cross-examination. If the victim of a crime was lucky enough to have had a close relative who is particularly eloquent, a devastating VIS might be prepared. But unlike testimony, the defendent does not have the opportunity to challenge the assertion that the victim was loved by his mother more than most sons are loved by their mothers, or that his work in the community was really so valuable. I know it sounds crass, but if you’re not willing to subject the VIS to the same rigourous evaluation as any other evidence, then you probably should not be so eager to include it in court proceedings.

Moreover, even if everything in the VIS is true, so what? Consider the crime of murder. Sure there are people who might appear to have had more value to society than others, their deaths felt more keenly. But murder is about the interruption of that person’s life — who knows what path he might have taken. The vctim who seemed like a saint might have fallen on hard times six months down the road, and in desperation, robbed a bank and killed an innocent bystander. The victim who had alienated his family and co-workers and neighbours might have had, six months down the road, a change of heart worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge, and donated all his hoarded wealth to a hospital to fund a new wing.

Or not.

Problem is, we don’t know, so the law, until recently, avoided the sticky situation of estimating the value of a person’s life. All lives are equally worthy of protection under the law. All those who take a life face equal punishment as a result.

Now we subject crime victims to the indignity of having to convince the court that they or their lost loved ones are more worthy of consideration during sentencing. Why should I have to jump through this hoop? I should be able to sit quietly, say nothing, and expect the court to issue a sentence against the person who wronged me and the community at large, and expect that justice, blind and fair, be meted out.

It is the math behind it that reveals the twisted logic. Imagine the crime X earns you sentence Y, all things being equal. But because of a particularly poignant VIS, the criminal earns Y+5. This is allowed when Y+5 falls within the range of sentences allowed, though at the high end. Now turn it around. Let Z equal Y+5. Crime X has the potential of earning a sentence of Z. But if the victim doesn’t submit a compelling VIS, you end up with a sentence of Z-5.

What if the victim was a real jerk?

Which brings us back to the gag at the top of this piece. Drebin commits two counts of vehicular manslaughter. But in terms of a VIS, society would seem to be better off without these two people around. His guilt is not merely mitigated, it is actually inverted completely, and his punishment is replaced with adulation and an award.

Someone would argue that the humour is in that it takes the notion of the VIS to an absurd extreme for the sake of a laugh. But what these people are missing is that whenever you see a joke based on taking some notion to an “absurd extreme”, it is more often than not an absurd notion to begin with. The extreme treatment merely highlights the absurdity that is already there; it does not manufacture it.

[Originally posted at Angry in the Great White North]
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