Reverberations of the Victim's 'Voice': Victim Impact Statements and the Cultural Project of Punishment

Erin L. Sheley

University of Calgary Faculty of Law

April 12, 2011

Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 87, 2012

This article will argue that the current debate on the victim’s participation in the criminal sentencing process ignores how the complexity of a victim narrative effectively conveys the social experience of harm, without which the criminal justice system loses its legitimacy as a penal authority. In other words, we cannot only consider "the victim," "the defendant," and "the state" as three separate entities vying for narrative control over accounts of harm in determining punishment. Rather, the stories of the victims and defendants already circulate through society outside of the courtroom and the function of "the state" in the trial context is to vindicate the interests of this society. Notions about criminal "harm" enter the culture through the experiences of individuals, as well as through political rhetoric and media representations, and, once there, shape social norms about the assignment of blame. Therefore, if the sentencing process cannot accommodate the stories of actual harm to individual victims it runs the risk of either coming to be viewed as illegitimate to a society guided by these norms or allowing free reign for generic representations of criminal harm produced by political and media actors to take the place of individuated victim accounts in the mind of a fact-finder.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 55

Keywords: victim impact statements, sentencing, cultural memory, narrative

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Date posted: April 13, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Sheley, Erin L., Reverberations of the Victim's 'Voice': Victim Impact Statements and the Cultural Project of Punishment (April 12, 2011). Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 87, 2012. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1808125

Contact Information

Erin L. Sheley (Contact Author)
University of Calgary Faculty of Law ( email )
Murray Fraser Hall
2500 University Dr. N.W.
Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4
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