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What Role Do Victim Statements Play in Texas’ Sentencing Guidelines?

What Role Do Victim Impact Statements Play in Texas’ Sentencing Guidelines?

If you or a loved one has been the victim of a crime in Texas, you may be wondering what role, if any, you can play in the sentencing of the offender. One important way victims can have their voices heard is through victim impact statements. Let‘s take a closer look at what these statements are and how they factor into Texas‘ criminal sentencing process.

What is a Victim Impact Statement?

A victim impact statement is a written or oral statement made by the victim of a crime, describing how the offense has affected them physically, emotionally, and financially. In Texas, victims have the right to submit an impact statement after a defendant has been convicted or has pled guilty or no contest.4 The purpose of the victim impact statement is to allow victims to express the full impact of the crime on their lives, beyond just the basic facts of the case. It gives victims a chance to talk about the aftermath of the crime and how it has changed them and their families. Many victims find it very therapeutic and empowering to have this opportunity to speak their truth. 7 Victim impact statements can take different forms – a formal written statement, a personal letter to the judge, or verbal testimony at the sentencing hearing. The format is up to the victim and what they feel most comfortable with. Some key things often included in impact statements are: 7

  • How the crime has affected the victim’s physical and mental health
  • Psychological impacts like fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc.
  • Changes to the victim’s ability to work, attend school, or function in daily life
  • Financial losses and hardships due to medical bills, therapy costs, lost wages, etc.
  • Effect on the victim’s relationships and family
  • Victim’s feelings about the crime and the offender
  • Victim’s opinion on what they feel is an appropriate sentence

It’s important to note that while victims have the right to submit an impact statement, they are not obligated to do so. It’s a personal choice. If a victim does not feel comfortable making a statement, their rights and privacy should be respected. 4

How Do Victim Impact Statements Factor Into Sentencing?

So what happens to these victim impact statements once they are submitted? Under Texas law, judges must consider victim impact statements before imposing a sentence on a convicted defendant.6The statements become part of the offender’s pre-sentence investigation report, which is a document prepared by the probation department to help guide the judge in determining an appropriate sentence. This report includes details of the offense, the defendant‘s criminal history and personal background, and any aggravating or mitigating factors – which is where the victim impact statement comes in.5Judges have a lot of discretion in sentencing, especially for felony offenses that carry wide punishment ranges. For example, a first-degree felony in Texas carries a potential sentence anywhere from 5 to 99 years or life in prison.15 In deciding where within that range a particular defendant‘s sentence should fall, judges weigh many factors, and the impact on victims is an important one.

Research has shown that victim impact statements can influence sentencing outcomes in several ways:135

  • Statements that emphasize serious physical or psychological harm to victims can lead to harsher sentences. The more severe the impact described, the more likely the judge is to impose a lengthier prison term.
  • Statements that request a specific punishment, especially a more punitive one, can result in tougher sentences being handed down. Judges tend to give weight to victims’ opinions on what constitutes justice in their case.
  • The format of the statement matters too. Studies have found in-person victim testimony at sentencing hearings is more impactful than written statements. Putting a human face on the crime can be very powerful.
  • Multiple victim impact statements, especially in cases with numerous victims, can have a cumulative effect in increasing sentence severity. The more victims detailing the damages they’ve suffered, the more a judge may feel a strong punishment is warranted.
  • Even the relationship between the victim and offender can make a difference. Some research suggests closer relationships, like family members or domestic partners, can lead to more lenient sentences, possibly due to judges viewing the crime as a private matter. Crimes against strangers tend to be punished more harshly.

However, it‘s crucial to understand that victim impact statements are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to sentencing. Judges must balance the victim’s experience against many other considerations, such as:16

  • The facts and circumstances of the offense itself
  • The defendant’s criminal history and likelihood to re-offend
  • The defendant’s personal history, character, and background
  • Aggravating factors like heinousness of the crime, betrayal of trust, etc.
  • Mitigating factors like the defendant’s age, mental state, lack of prior record, etc.
  • The need for punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation
  • Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences set by law
  • Consistency with similar cases
  • Impact on the community and public safety

So while victim impact statements are an important factor, they alone do not dictate the sentence. A judge could hear a very compelling victim statement urging maximum punishment, but still decide on a lesser sentence due to strong mitigating evidence or other case factors.5It’s also worth noting that victim impact statements are not always prosecution-friendly. Sometimes they can benefit the defense, such as when the victim advocates for mercy, forgiveness, or a more lenient sentence. Ultimately, judges must use their discretion to weigh the victim‘s input along with all other relevant information in crafting a just and appropriate sentence.1

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Victim Impact Statements at Parole Hearings

In addition to sentencing, victim impact statements also play a role in parole decisions once an offender is serving their prison term. In Texas, victims have the right to submit statements to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to be considered during the parole review process.4Similar to sentencing, parole boards use victim statements to gauge the ongoing impact of the crime and the harm done. They want to hear how the victim is doing X years later. Is the victim still suffering physical or psychological effects? Do they still live in fear? How has their life changed because of this crime?7

Victim input, either for or against parole, can be influential as the board weighs whether the offender has served sufficient time and has been rehabilitated enough to warrant release. A powerful victim statement opposing parole can definitely sway the board against release in a close case.7 However, like judges at sentencing, parole boards must consider victim statements as one factor among many. They also heavily weigh the offender’s behavior and progress in prison, their criminal history and risk level, and the circumstances of the underlying offense. So a victim’s opposition to parole doesn‘t necessarily mean it will be denied.4

Tips for Making an Effective Victim Impact Statement

If you choose to submit a victim impact statement in a Texas criminal case, here are some tips to make it as clear and persuasive as possible:7

  1. Be detailed and specific in describing how the crime has impacted your life. Don’t just say “It was traumatic” – explain exactly how. What physical injuries or symptoms do you now struggle with? What activities that you used to enjoy can you no longer do? How have your relationships suffered? Have you experienced new feelings of fear, mistrust, depression, or anger? Concrete examples are powerful.
  2. Use feeling words to convey the emotional impact, but avoid inflammatory or abusive language toward the defendant. It’s okay to be angry, but don’t let it overshadow your message.
  3. If you believe a certain sentence is just, be specific in your reasoning. Don’t just say “Lock him up forever” – explain why you feel the crime warrants that. What would a lighter sentence say to you and other victims?
  4. Avoid going into great detail about the crime itself. The judge already has those facts. Focus on how it has affected you and your family since then.
  5. You can address the defendant directly if you wish, but you don’t have to. Do what feels right for you. Some victims want the offender to hear how they’ve hurt them. Others prefer to pretend the offender isn’t there and speak only to the judge.
  6. While specific length of sentence recommendations are allowed, it’s also okay to focus on the impact and let the judge decide the number. Saying “I don’t feel I’ll ever be safe if he’s free” sends a clear message without stating years.
  7. If you’re okay with it, consider delivering your statement in person rather than just in writing. Hearing directly from you in your own voice can be very impactful.
  8. Get help if you need it. Victim assistance programs and counselors can assist you in organizing your thoughts and processing your feelings to craft an effective statement. Don’t feel you have to do it alone.
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