Victims in all four focus groups un-animously agreed that victims have an important role in the juvenile justice process. Interestingly, their concept of "role" at times equated directly to victims' rights, with a significant emphasis on the rights to information and participation. As one victim noted:
When every situation starts, you have rights . . . (the) right to go to court. I was not informed, nor did I have the right to be heard. They did not have time for me and I was not heard. I think if you are a victim that you should be properly notified of all hearings . . . if a deal is going to be cut, the victim is the one who should be able to cut the dealnot somebody else. You have $50,000 (in losses), and the prosecutor says the restitution is $1,000. I think it's hard to take.
Several victims pointed out the need for their roles to be defined by agency policy, in addition to state law. The lack of consistency in victims' roles is directly linked to the lack of consistency among jurisdictions within states and the absence of a "unified system." As it is now, both juvenile justice processes and related victims' rights vary greatly depending upon the jurisdiction. The need for consistent policies is emphasized by a victim advocate who said:
We need some clear-cut guidelines so that we know what the victims' rights are. In each county, it is different, and the rights of the victims change. It makes it hard on victim services to tell the victims what their rights might be. There is nothing clear-cut across the line.
One victim emphasized that "the victim's role should be his or her choice." This statement mirrors the longstanding position of most victim advocates that victims should be given power and control over issues that affect their lives in the aftermath of a crime. This position is based on the premise that victims do not choose to be victims, and they have little or no control over the crime or delinquent act that resulted in their victimization.
While the victims' role is often limited to that of witness to the crime, participating victims agreed that they had much more to offer in the way of relevant information that needed to be heard in court. As one victim advocate noted:
We would like to see that there is an opportunity for victims to meet with judges or court personnel. [One survivor] thought there were things she could have said to the judge at some point in time about her son. There was a lot of information that was given in the courtroom about the offender. There ought to be personal information about the life of the homicide victim.
Some of the most vocal judges in one state expressed general opposition to victim input at any stage other than disposition, at which time they approved only victim impact statements. However, the judges generally agreed that crime victims could play meaningful roles throughout the juvenile justice process. Variation was centered on the desirability of victim input, the most efficient ways to obtain input, the nature of this input, and the relative appropriateness and usefulness of input at different stages of the process.
A majority of judges seemed open, if not favorably inclined, toward victim input into diversion decisions. Judges in every state expressed the view that victims should have, as one judge noted, "input but not discretion" in this front-end decision. Judges were asked about whether and how victims' voices might be given consideration in the plea agreement process. With the exception of the aforementioned state, where this option for victim involvement was not discussed, judges in the other groups agreed that plea-bargaining was a critical stage for victims' input. Judges agreed that "respectful input" should be sought at this stage, although one judge noted that "people (i.e., professionals) in the system must have the most significant input." One judge speculated that it was in those cases in which victims have input into the plea bargain, and then appear for a dispositional hearing, that their presence and involvement "provides the magic" that can come from meaningful involvement in the court process.
How to promote such meaningful involvement was a more difficult issue. Should the victim's advocate make it a point to get involved in the plea agreement meeting and would that be feasible? Would it be enough for police to provide an accurate pamphlet explaining the court process, including plea agreements? According to some judges (and some members of the victims' groups), victims who become informed figure out that the plea-bargaining process is the point at which a critical decision will be made, so they find ways to voice their preferences and concernsgenerally through the prosecutor. Even judges who were most favorable toward input at this stage saw many practical difficulties in making this happen. Some suggested that input at plea bargaining be encouraged but carried out on a case-by-case basis.
With very little disagreement among the judges that victims should have some role at disposition, the discussions at this point revolved around who was responsible for notification and how the process could be improved, given the generally low rate of victim participation in these jurisdictions. A secondary issue for some judges was that victims should be prepared ("lowered expectations" was a term used more than once) for the possible outcomes in a dispositional hearing. Notification is a tremendous problem in those courts in which arraignment hearings are used to accomplish a number of other court objectives, including much of the work of adjudication and disposition. Time between such preliminary decisions and dispositional rulings creates windows of opportunity for notification that are often very narrow.
An issue that assumed much greater importance than expected generally, and in disposition discussions specifically, was the victim impact statement. Somewhat surprisingly, judges almost unanimously reported reading these statements quite carefully and relying on them for their information about harm done to victims. To place this in context, the judges most sensitive to victims also reported that they valued the input of "actual victims" and felt that this input was far too rare. One judge exclaimed that he had grown tired of hearing that there is no time for verbal statements by victims and stated the following:
There is time if we just build in opportunities for it . . . often it only takes two or three minutes . . . and it's worth it because the victim needs to ventilate whether or not the judge needs the extra information.
According to another judge, the victim's verbal statement is also of vital importance to the offender and to others in the courtroom. Judges also valued good written victim impact statements as a key to dispositional decisionmaking. In two states, however, judges reported that written statements lacked the impact they might have. One judge noted:
Impact statements have become so routine that sometimes they seem canned . . . they seem too clean and homogenized, so that they don't really have the "impact" we think they should have.
Surprisingly, the issue of confidentiality in dispositional proceedings received limited discussion among judges. Only two states raised it as a concern. Judges in one state expressed concern that some information was sensitive but agreed that judges' instructions to victims and other hearing participants to keep these materials confidential were enough to ensure the protection of offenders and families. Similarly, when the most "pro-victim" judges considered confidentiality, the discussion focused on how judges could use their discretion to get around prohibitions against openness at the dispositional phase.
Exception to this general support for openness and accessibility came from judges in one state who believed that information likely to be presented in a dispositional hearing might be embarrassing to offenders and their families, perhaps even ultimately harmful. When the moderator in a general group dialogue in this state raised the general issue of how much victim participation was needed at dispositions, a judge raised the issue of the need to prohibit victims from hearing certain information about the offender's background:
There is another important factor that you have in juvenile court, that of confidentiality. And the problem with victim input when we are talking about a juvenile who may have been sexually abused, chemical dependency, psychiatric evaluations . . . it cannot be the same as adult court because that information is confidential, and no victim is entitled to know. Especially in the nonpublic hearing, and even in public hearings, we get to kick the public out when we get to (the point of) speaking about psychological evaluations during hearings . . . and no statute has taken away that confidentiality.Following the objections to this statement by several victim participants, a participating prosecutor informed them that they were "not entitled to this personal information." This was seconded by a judge who argued that "these families were ashamed, and they didn't want victims to hear everything." In response, a victim observed that the juveniles who burglarized her home "found out everything about me and my family." Others commented that crime victims weren't interested in "gossip" about juveniles and their families, but did want access to information such as prior records, how decisions were made, and what might have motivated the offender to choose to harm them. Another judge concluded this rather lively interchange by saying that no matter how much he and his colleagues tried to protect confidentiality, "in [this state], we're going to open it [confidentiality] upwe're just crazy enough to open it up."