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Resolved: In United States courts, victim impact statements ought to influence sentencing

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In United States Courts

A court of law is a venue in which judicial trials are held. According to the Oxford American Dictionary, a court of law is "a tribunal presided over by a judge, judges, or a magistrate in civil and criminal cases." The phrase "In United States courts" merely refers to trials that are held under the jurisdiction of United States judges and are judged according to United States laws.

However, criminal law in the United States is mostly administered by the separate States. The United States government is a federalist system. An interesting question for debate here is whether affirming the resolution would mean limiting States' rights.

Victim impact statements

  • In court cases, a victim impact statement (VIS) is a written statement summarizing the effects of a crime on its victim. It is not held as a paramount piece of evidence; however, courts will consider the VIS to allow the victim a voice in his/her judicial process. The primary benefit of using the VIS is that courts will have a firsthand look into facets of the crime other than just physical and financial damage. However, a flaw of VIS is that they may be exaggerated or inaccurate, not because the victim intends to skew the truth, but because they have suffered and may not be making their statement at their most rational moment. Victim impact statements can also be made by the families of a victim in the case of a victim either being deceased or too severely injured to give their own statement.
  • A victim's impact statement allows victims of crime a chance to address the court prior to the sentencing of the accused. A VIS statement makes the crime more personal and some believe that allowing victims to make these statements helps with their emotional recovery. Victim impact statements may be either oral or written and provide the court with more information concerning the crime.

Ought to influence

Ought means to have a moral obligation to do something. To influence means to have an impact on something. In the context of this resolution, "ought to influence" would mean that the judge presiding over the case would have a moral obligation to consider the victim impact statement when making his sentencing. As with the precautionary principle resolution, this does not mean that the victim impact statement ought to be the deciding factor in the judge's decision. It only means that when judges or juries are determining the sentences to give those convicted of crimes, victim impact statements ought to be another thing they consider, along with the seriousness of the crime and the intent.

Sentencing

Sentencing occurs after a person has been convicted of a crime. Convicted criminals are sentenced to some form of punishment. Since the sentence needs to be determined in this resolution, means that the judge or jury has already determined the guilt or innocence of the defendant in a criminal trial, and is at the point of deciding the punishment.

In the United States, many States as well as the federal government have different sentencing guidelines that leave a varying amount of autonomy to judges and juries when deciding sentencing.

A commonly understood principle in criminal justice is that "punishment should fit the crime," meaning that there should be some degree of proportionality between the crime committed and the sentence.

Affirming the Topic

Argument #1

Yes

Criminal law already takes into account the consequences of a person's actions. For instance, "attempted murder" is penalized differently from "murder." Grand theft is punished differently from petty larceny. The same actions, in these cases, are punished differently because they have different consequences.

No

The different categorizations are still too broad to take into consideration the variety of impacts an action can have. Attempted murder is different from murder but the harm caused by the by two different people committing the same criminal act can be vastly different. For example attempted murder is defined as, "First, acting deliberately and intentionally or recklessly with extreme disregard for human life, the person attempted to kill someone; and the person did something that was a substantial step toward committing the crime." A person who attempted to murder someone in the heat of the moment may deserve a different punishment than someone who has planned a murder for a significant amount of time. Or if sentencing is meant to be retributive then a person who has paralyzed their victim for life ought to be punished different from a person whos victim has suffered no long term harm.

Negating the Topic

Argument #1

Yes

People ought to be treated as "equals before the law." People who commit the same crime ought to receive the same penalty.

No

Equal people doing equal things ought to be treated as equals before the law. If people have different degrees of intent and have caused different degrees of harm which can be determined with VIS then they should be punished differently.

Argument #2

Yes

Victim impact statements include only the emotions of the victim. While it is important to consider the impact of the crime on the victim, going to the victim does not offer a fair and balanced account of the crime. The victim impact statement is laden with the emotional baggage of the victim, and is therefore totally skewed in its view of the crime. It is unreasonable to expect a victim of a crime such as assault to step back and view the crime objectively. This is not to say that crimes such as assault should be taken lightly; rather, it means that crimes ought to be viewed objectively and without bias, and victim impact statements cannot provide this objectivity.

No

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