Victims have stake in criminal justice debate

Hearing will provide comment opportunity for crime survivors

CRIME VICTIMS are the only participants in the criminal justice system who did not, by their own action or choice, put themselves there.  At the same time, they are often the most impacted and endangered participants in the system.  The Massachusetts Victim Rights Law ensures that victims have access to their rights and information throughout the criminal prosecution of the offenders charged with crimes against them.  The Victim Rights Law also gives victims a meaningful role in a criminal case and a specific right to be heard on sentencing.  Victims should be provided the same meaningful opportunity to be heard today, as policy makers consider changes to sentencing and release practices during this legislative session.

Thirty-three years ago, the Massachusetts Legislature recognized the importance of having victims and survivors inform the sentencing process, by enacting the right to be heard as a cornerstone of the Victim Rights Law.  The law allows crime victims the opportunity to tell the sentencing judge about the impact a crime has had on them physically, emotionally, and financially, as well as offer their thoughts on the appropriate sentence. While the impact statement does not direct the judge’s decision-making, it must be considered as a sentence is imposed.  A victim’s insights ensure that a judge sees the full effect of the defendant’s actions and learns about the violent crime’s often devastating impact on a victim’s ability to go to school or work, sleep soundly, pay their bills, support their family, or maintain the positive social connections that all of us need to live a happy life.

The victim can also express his or her views on sentencing.  A victim who knows the defendant, for example, may have important information about the need for probationary conditions that promote the victim’s safety or the offender’s treatment needs.  While the court views sentencing on a spectrum – comparing crimes and offenders to each other when fashioning a sentence – victims do not.  For a victim, the crime committed against them is often the worst event of their life.  The impact statement allows that victim to express their view of justice to the court, often comparing who they were before the crime to who they are in its wake.

In the coming months, leaders on Beacon Hill will debate legislation that addresses the sentencing, incarceration, and supervision of those convicted of criminal offenses. We all benefit from a criminal justice system that is effective at deterring crime, ensuring public safety, and rehabilitating offenders.  There has been significant dialogue already about alternatives to incarceration and potential strategies to reduce the recidivism of offenders.  Unfortunately, crime victims have not had a meaningful opportunity to share their voice in this debate, despite their clear stake in it.  As the Legislature discusses these critical issues, it is important that they, like their predecessors 33 years ago, offer victims that opportunity to be heard.

The perspectives of crime victims on sentencing reform will be as unique and varied as the individuals sharing them. Nonetheless, there are important lessons to be learned from each survivor willing to share his or her story.

Meet the Author

Liam Lowney

Executive director, Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance
In an effort to create a platform for those victim voices to be heard, the Victim and Witness Assistance Board and the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance are inviting victims to testify at a hearing on May 23, 2017 from 12:30-3:00 on the second floor of the Saltonstall Building at 100 Cambridge Street in Boston. The Victim and Witness Assistant Board consists of Attorney General Maura Healey, District Attorneys Jonathan Blodgett and David Capeless, and survivor board members Joshua Moulton and Danielle Sicard. We hope legislators working on policies related to sentencing reform will join us to hear these stories.  Victims of crime have been informing the sentencing of violent offenders in individual cases for decades, and we should ensure that this broader debate is also informed by their insights and experience.

Liam Lowney is the executive director of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance.