Victim Impact Statements and Expressive Punishment in the Age of Social Media

32 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2016 Last revised: 29 Sep 2016

Erin L. Sheley

University of Calgary Faculty of Law

Date Written: September 19, 2016


Victim impact statements (VIS) are long-disfavored among legal commentators for allegedly injecting unnecessary, negative emotion into sentencing at the expense of the defendant, with ambiguous informational benefits to the sentencing body. Most traditional arguments both for and against VIS turn on purely retributive or utilitarian grounds. This essay takes up the Stanford sexual assault victim’s statement to propose an expressive framework for understanding the function of VIS, which resolves much of the theoretical confusion surrounding the traditional justifications. I show how the expressive goals of criminal punishment have long been distorted by the mediation of traditional news reporting. I then analyze the legal relevance of the particular criminological values expressed in the Stanford statement to show how unmediated victim narratives may counterbalance media distortion, particularly in the age of social media transmission. I conclude that the criminal justice system better serves its expressive function by formally incorporating VIS into sentencing.

Keywords: Sentencing, Expressive Punishment, Victim Impact Statements

Suggested Citation

Sheley, Erin L., Victim Impact Statements and Expressive Punishment in the Age of Social Media (September 19, 2016). Wake Forest Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

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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