Back in 1987 when the Texas Crime Victim Clearinghouse, then a program of the Office of the Governor, made its initial report to the 70th Texas Legislature, it concluded that the Victim Impact Statement (VIS), although “still a relatively new procedure,” was “largely ignored or forgotten by the criminal justice system.” But the Clearinghouse believed then as it does today that the Victim Impact Statement is the “most effective voice that the victim can have.”#1
If you don’t remember—or were not born yet—it was the 69th Texas Legislature that passed House Bill 235 that created the statute in the Code of Criminal Procedure that detailed crime victims’ rights in Texas, defined the “statutory victim,” and established the use of a form called the Victim Impact Statement. The statute as it read then also required the Texas Crime Victim Clearinghouse to prepare and submit a report “on the implementation of the Victim Impact Statement” to the 70th Legislature.
Article 56.05 of the Code of Criminal Procedure states that the Texas Crime Victim Clearinghouse, now a program of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Victim Services Division, in partnership with the Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) and the TDCJ Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD), is still required to “develop a survey plan to maintain statistics on the numbers and types of persons to whom state and local agencies provide victim impact statements during each year.” If you have been a victim assistance coordinator in a county or district attorney’s office for even a short time, you most likely have come across this survey plan, the Victim Impact Statement Quarterly Activity Report.
Setting aside the statutory requirement that the Clearinghouse collect and maintain statistics, why is the Quarterly Activity Report important? Because of the dedication and hard work of many people, the VIS is no longer ignored in the criminal justice system. More and more key decisionmakers recognize its importance as well as their obligation to consider it when making vital decisions along the way. The Victim Impact Statement may serve as the single most important right victims have in our complex criminal justice process. Not only is it a personal record of the impact of violent crime on victims and their families, but it also serves as their voice in the process. If they choose to participate, their Victim Impact Statement can influence how justice is ultimately served.
Although the Clearinghouse is no longer required to submit a report to the Texas Legislature, we have continued to collect statistics on the “numbers and types of persons to whom state and local agencies provide victim impact statements during each year.” Historically, the Clearinghouse has collected these statistics on a semiannual, calendar-year basis. In calendar year 2010, we began to collect the statistics quarterly. Beginning September 1, 2011, the statistics will be based on a fiscal year timeframe.
The latest statistics
Last fiscal year, 2009–10, the TDCJ Victim Services Division published these statistics in its first annual report. (You can find it on the TDCJ website at www.tdcj.state.tx.us. Click on the Victim Services Division link in the Quick Links box.) In that report, counties that reported (that is, 90 percent of Texas’ 254 counties) stated that 96,367 Victim Impact Statements were provided to victims by county and district attorney’s offices during the fiscal year. These numbers indicate that prosecutors’ offices across the state are working very hard to ensure that victims of crime are receiving Victim Impact Statement packets. Of those, 14,642 victims, or 15 percent, returned the VISes to the counties.
Of the 231 reporting counties, 27 said they did not provide or receive back any Victim Impact Statements. Keep in mind that the Clearinghouse solicits reports from both county attorney’s offices as well as district attorney’s offices. Because many county attorney’s offices deal only with misdemeanor offenses, they may not encounter victims as defined in the Code of Criminal Procedure and so would have no statutory obligation to provide Victim Impact Statements.
Because 85 percent of victims who were provided Victim Impact Statements decided not to return them, it is important to identify the reasons why. First, not all cases that are indicted are adjudicated, so there is no reason for the victim to return the statement. Also, some victims do not want to have anything to do with the criminal justice process. Finally, many victims believe the wheels of justice will rumble on, regardless of their involvement, and the system will take care of everything.
However, many victims may not return their Victim Impact Statements because they are unclear of its role and importance in the process; they may confuse it with other documents and forms they receive; they fear the offender having access to it; or it may be too emotionally difficult to complete the VIS at the time they receive it.
If a victim chooses not to submit a Victim Impact Statement, that is his right. If he does not submit one because the form or the process is confusing or unclear, then the criminal justice system has not fully served that victim. Innovative practices that will increase the likelihood that victims will complete and return Victim Impact Statements must be explored.
Every odd-numbered year, according Article 56.03(h) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Clearinghouse convenes a Victim Impact Statement Revision Committee. The committee consists of representatives from the BPP and TDCJ CJAD along with the Texas Youth Commission, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, the Office of the Attorney General, and county and district attorney’s offices across the state. Recent committees have included at least one victim representative as well. In addition to complying with statutes and incorporating updates based on new legislation, the committee works very hard to insure that the Victim Impact Statement serves the victims for whom it is meant. The committee takes great care to design a form that is easy to complete, that includes all the information it needs to collect, and that is easily distinguishable from other forms, such as the Crime Victims Compensation form. To set victims at ease, the victim contact information, which is protected by law, is separate from the victim impact portion and clearly indicates that the information is confidential. The instructions included with the packet have been designed to be clear and concise as well.
Still, only 15 percent of the Victim Impact Statements are completed and returned. Even fewer, around 4 percent, make it to TDCJ Classification and Records for inclusion in offender files for review by the BPP and to be forwarded to the TDCJ Victim Services Division for notification purposes. Some Victim Impact Statements that are not forwarded to TDCJ are sent to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) if the offender is a juvenile and to community supervision and corrections departments for offenders who are sentenced to community supervision (probation). The only way these VISes are forwarded to TDCJ is if the juvenile offender ages out of TYC and is transferred to TDCJ or if the offender’s probation is revoked and is transferred to TDCJ. At this time, we do not collect statistics on how many Victim Impact Statements come to TDCJ from TYC or local community supervision and corrections departments.
If we have designed a useful Victim Impact Statement packet and the county and district attorney’s offices across the state are providing them to victims, how can we make sure that victims who want to exercise their right to be heard get that opportunity? Front-end efforts, such as making sure the victim knows what she is receiving in the Victim Impact Statement and how it will be used and protected throughout the process, and follow-up procedures, including letters or phone calls to find out if the victim received and understands the Victim Impact Statement, may address the reasons Victim Impact Statements are not completed and returned.
However, in many counties, implementing these kinds of programs is much easier said than done. Small counties may not have the staff to follow up with victims. Very often the victim assistance coordinator already wears many hats or may provide victim assistance as only part of her overall job duties. A large county may have a bigger staff, but the number of victims it serves is astounding. In FY 2009–10, four of the largest counties in Texas—Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and El Paso Counties—provided over half of all Victim Impact Statements distributed statewide, a total of 49,115. Providing services to victims and affording them their basic statutory rights is difficult even with a large victim services staff. Going beyond that by providing front-end and follow-up services requires some creative initiatives, such as enlisting volunteers and interns or using new technology.
There is a misconception across the state that Victim Impact Statements are the sole responsibility of the victim assistance coordinators in county and district attorney’s offices. Prosecutors’ offices and their victim assistance coordinators bear a tremendous responsibility for Victim Impact Statements. However, they are not alone. Statutes clearly mandate that the courts, district clerks, sheriff’s offices, and corrections agencies are charged with their own responsibilities related to Victim Impact Statements. For this reason, the Clearinghouse has partnered with other state and local agencies to develop training programs as well as sample protocols designed to inform, educate, and guide all agencies and criminal justice professionals who have legal responsibilities regarding Victim Impact Statements.
As these sample protocols continue to develop and as the criminal justice community and the general public become more aware of and educated about the availability, uses, and importance of the Victim Impact Statement, the Quarterly Activity Report will continue to be one of the main tools available to gauge whether these efforts are working at the state and local levels. Return rates of Victim Impact Statements do not tell the whole story, but as long as we continue to develop programs from what we learn from the Quarterly Activity Report and strive for participation from every county and district attorney’s office in the state, these statistics can be clear indicators that the efforts set forth back in 1983 by the original Texas Crime Victim Clearinghouse are continued by the dedicated criminal justice professionals who now serve victims in our state. The victims of crime in our communities deserve no less.
1 Suzanne McDaniel, Crime Victim Impact. A Report to the 70th Legislature, Texas Crime Victim Clearinghouse, Office of the Governor of Texas, 1987, p 45