23 November 2020
The Sentencing Academy has published a review of the operation of Victim Personal Statements in England and Wales by Elspeth Windsor and Julian V. Roberts.
Read the full report here:
• The role of the victim at sentencing is one of the most active areas of policy and research in the field of sentencing. Victims now provide input into many stages of the criminal process, beginning with bail decision-making and ending with parole. This input usually takes the form of an impact statement which is then considered by courts and parole authorities. This paper explores victim input at the stage of sentencing in England and Wales.
• The Victim Personal Statement (VPS) scheme has been operating for almost 20 years, without any official review of its operation. The primary purpose of the VPS is to allow the victim to document the impact of the crime, and not to provide a recommendation for sentencing. This report reviews recent research and data trends with respect to the use of VPSs at sentencing.
• All crime victims in England and Wales are entitled to make a VPS to be considered by the court at sentencing. Submitting a VPS is optional and the guidance is clear that a victim’s decision not to submit a VPS should not result in any adverse inferences at sentencing. The right is specified in the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (Victims’ Code) which states that victims of crime are entitled to be offered the opportunity to make a VPS.
• Until it was discontinued in 2010, the primary source of information about victims was the Witness and Victim Experience Survey (WAVES). Today, the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) is currently the principal source of information about victims’ experiences and responses.
• All respondents to the CSEW who reported a crime to the police are asked whether the police gave them an opportunity to submit a VPS. Across the most recent administrations of the Crime Survey of England and Wales only 13% recalled receiving an offer. The percentage of respondents recalling a VPS offer has changed little over the past six administrations of the CSEW. It is unclear whether victims were offered a VPS, but then failed to recall the offer or whether they never received an offer.
• There was little regional variation in the recall of offer rates: the lowest recall of offer rate was 11% (in Yorkshire and Humberside) and the highest in the Southwest (17%).
• Of the victims who recalled being offered the opportunity to submit a statement, approximately half the victims (53%) stated they had submitted a VPS.
• CSEW respondents are asked the following question: ‘Do you feel that what you said in your Victim Personal Statement was taken into account by the Criminal Justice System?’. The latest administration (2018-19) found the following distribution of responses: ‘Yes, completely’: 35.3%; ‘Yes, to some extent’: 30.4%; ‘No, not really’: 13.0%; ‘No, not at all’: 21.0%.
• Since the CSEW does not probe respondents’ reasons for submitting or refraining from submitting a statement, it is unclear why only a small percentage of crime victims ultimately submitted a VPS for the purposes of sentencing.
• Research from other jurisdictions suggests that the use of VPSs do not systematically increase sentence severity. In general, victims who submit an impact statement report being more satisfied with the sentencing process, and indicate that they would submit a statement in the future if they were victimised again. Research in England and Wales has yet to adequately address these questions.
• Current knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the regime is insufficient to determine whether the VPS has achieved its objectives. In light of its importance as a primary vehicle for victim input into sentencing, the VPS regime should be subject to a comprehensive evaluation, and the 20th anniversary is a good opportunity for this to take place. The report concludes by identifying a number of research priorities. These include further investigation of the low recall of offer rate, as well as exploration of the reasons why approximately half of all crime victims decline to participate in the VPS scheme.