Leiden Law School students ‘immune’ for victim statements

Leiden Law School students ‘immune’ for victim statements

Each year about 250 victims deliver a statement in Dutch courts. Most expect that this will lead to more punitive sentences. Judges however don't believe that this affects their decisions. Who is right? A study among Leiden law students provides an answer.

The victim statement in Dutch criminal procedure informs the judge, the parties and the public of the effect of the criminal act upon the victim. The submission of a victim statement is intended to contribute to the victim’s recovery from the emotional damage the criminal act has caused and should lead to the prevention of future crimes. In Dutch criminal procedure, victim statements can simply be added to the case file (for example if the victim finds it too troubling to come to court) but they can also be delivered in court. To many, victim statements are an oddity in Dutch criminal procedure which, so they say, should primarily deal with assessing the criminal liability of the accused. The victim’s role is indeed of much lesser importance in court, but it’s importance is growing and the call for changes facilitating the victim’s role in criminal procedure has become louder over the years. One of the last proposals the Ministry of Safety and Justice has issued in this respect concerns the extension of the scope of victims statements to include the desired sentence. According to this proposal, victims should have the authority to express their view in court on the desired sentence.

To assess the legitimacy of victim statements in criminal law, we need to know whether a victim statement has any punitive effect (as some intuitively might think) on the sentencing decision. Victims do seem to come to court with this expectation. Judges in Dutch criminal courts however, do not believe that their sentencing decisions are affected by victim statements. If a victim statement has a punitive effect on the sentencing decision, this could lead to arbitrariness in the sentencing decision. And although victim’s rights might be satisfied, this could lead to unwarranted disparities and disproportionate sentencing. To find out more, we conducted experimental research among 261 undergraduate students from Leiden Law School.

In this experimental research, students were presented with a fictional criminal case. We examined the effect of the availability of a victim statement in a criminal trial, the effect of the mode of delivery of that statement (written or orally) and the effect of the visible injury whilst delivering the statement. After having assessed the presented information, students were instructed to give the total amount of an unconditional prison sentence in months. And what turned out: Yes, there were small differences between the imposed sentences in the various cases. However a scientifically relevant effect could not be established on the imposed sentence in relation to the presence of a victim statement in the case file, or in relation to the effect of the visible injury whilst delivering the statement.. Leiden Law School students therefore seem to be ‘immune’ to information transferred through victim statements. Good news? At least we can say, on the basis of this research, proportionality issues regarding the effect of victim statements on the sentencing decision are nuanced.

See for more details: Kampen, M. & Keijser, J.W., de & Schoep, G.K. (2013) Het effect van de slachtofferverklaring op de straftoemeting: een experimenteel onderzoek onder rechtenstudenten. Tijdschrift voor Criminologie, 55 (1), pp. 24-43.