Answers to common questions on implementing the legislative requirements for victim impact statements (VISes)
After serving on the legislatively mandated victim impact statement update committee, we see that one thing is clear: Victim assistance coordinators (VACs) throughout the state need guidelines for handling and maintaining Victim Impact Statements (VISes). The Code of Criminal Procedure mandates certain requirements for these statements, and questions arise in how to implement those requirements. Everyone seems to do things differently! Some of the many questions we have heard include:
- Does the prosecutor assigned to the case get a copy?
- Who is allowed to view the confidential portion, and who is not?
- Is the probation department entitled to see the VIS?
- Which part should the judge see and when?
- Who sends the impact statements to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Victim Services Division—the office’s VAC or the court when it sends commitment papers?
- Does the Victim Witness Division retain a copy? If so, for how long?
- Are we required to use the victim impact statement that the Texas Crime Victims Clearinghouse publishes every other year, or can we use our own?
- Why must we keep VIS stats?
This article’s purpose is to provide answers to these questions and more.
The purposes of the VIS
The statement is meant to inform the prosecutor, judge, and Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) of the impact of a violent crime upon the victim or the victim’s family. The confidential contact portion of the statement (also known as the Victim Information Sheet) is used by the prosecutor to locate the victim as needed before trial and by TDCJ’s Victim Services Division and the BPP for various notifications, including those pertaining to parole proceedings. Article 56.03(e) of the Code of Criminal Procedure states that the VIS should be given to the community supervision and corrections department whenever the court sentences the defendant to probation. In addition, if the defendant requests it, the court shall permit the defendant or his attorney to view the VIS, excluding the victim’s name, address, and telephone numbers. It is extremely important to remember to remove the confidential portion of the VIS from the copy provided to the judge before sentencing.
After sentencing, the court should attach the VIS to the defendant’s commitment papers. These are the same commitment papers that folks from the Victim Services Division look through daily for VISes so that victims and family members can be added to TDCJ’s notification database. That means that the confidential portion of the VIS must be re-attached before the commitment papers are sent to the prison, but how to do that? We figure that asking 200 VACs will net close to a hundred different answers. Most victim assistants, though, re-attach the contact page and send it, along with the impact portion, to TDCJ themselves. How these statements get to TDCJ is not as important as ensuring that the judge sees only the impact portion and that both portions are sent to TDCJ after the offender arrives there. That is our job, to ensure the victim’s information is seen only by those allowed to view it and that it is sent to the appropriate agency at the appropriate time. Obviously, follow-up on our part is essential.
In the prosecutors’ office
Counties vary in other ways. Once the prosecutors’ office receives the victim’s statement, most counties make one copy for the prosecutors and one for the court (which, as stated earlier, is separated from the confidential portion). Many VACs retain a copy or the original for their records, but that begs the question of how long these statements should be kept. To answer that, it’s important to know why we retain a copy. Most importantly, the VIS is used for victim notification of future court events. If your office’s victim division is solely responsible for notifying victims of all court settings, including appellate proceedings, and you do not have a database in which to enter this information, then you should probably keep the VIS until all appeals are exhausted, at which time it can be destroyed. Keep in mind that the BPP will have its own copy, as will the prosecutors’ case file, so it won’t be necessary to keep the original indefinitely. Most offices maintain a records retention policy that may provide guidance here.
The Texas Crime Victims Clearinghouse is required to publish a new Victim Impact Statement every two years. (A copy is at www.tdcaa .com as well as www.tdcj.state.tx.us/ victim/victim-clearinghs.htm.) The goal of the update committee was to shorten the VIS and to reduce the different types of VISes available. After several meetings and lots of hard work from the committee members and clearinghouse staff, we now have one universal version of the VIS for both homicide and non-homicide cases. We know that many offices use their own versions of this statement, but we encourage everyone to adopt this new one. It is very difficult for TDCJ’s Victim Services staff to recognize each county’s version, especially when looking through hundreds of pen packets every week. Of course, individual offices can add or remove any questions to make it apply more specifically to your county; just remember that the VIS must still meet code requirements.
Finally, why do we keep VIS stats? The Code of Criminal Procedure, again, requires that the BPP, Adult Probation Commission, and Texas Crime Victims Clearinghouse develop a form to record victim statistics. It also states that we are required to return the completed forms at intervals mandated by the VIS committee—and beginning next year, the intervals will be quarterly. (Again, a copy of this form is at www.tdcaa.com as well as www.tdcj .state.tx.us/victim/victim-clearinghs .htm.)These reports allow the clearinghouse to fulfill its responsibility of ensuring that we are doing our jobs to the best of our abilities.
We understand that most victim coordinators already have plenty of work without taking on additional responsibilities; however, maybe we can look upon this as an opportunity to evaluate and tweak our office’s victim program as needed. Is some of your information outdated? Could you find a way to use the new Victim Impact Statement? Is there a more efficient way to fulfill our VAC responsibilities? Remember, we are all here to help each other. If you have questions about whether your office meets the statutory requirements, don’t hesitate to call one of us or another VAC elsewhere in the state. We’re all here for the same purpose, to ensure victims are afforded their rights as mandated by the law.
Please feel free to contact Cyndi Jahn (210/335-2733 or cjahn@co .bexar.tx.us) or Chris Jenkins (214/ 653-3838 or cjenkins@dallascounty .org). If we don’t have the answer, we will do our best to find it for you.