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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

July 12, 2010

Victim Impact Panel Research Equivocal

Several counties in Wisconsin, including my home county, Dodge, use a victim impact panel (VIP) to attempt to reduce OWI recidivism. I am aware of four studies of VIPs. The results of these studies on reducing OWI recidivism are equivocal.

At a VIP, victims of OWI homicides or injuries, recount their losses to a group of OWI offenders. The theoretical framework for VIPs is derived from concepts of inclusionary social control and re-integrative shaming coming from the restorative justice approach to controlling criminal behavior. The argument is that eliciting shame in OWI offenders from listening to victims of OWI may induce them to not engage in anti-social behavior such as operating while intoxicated.[i]

One randomized study in New Mexico showed no effect on OWI recidivism after two years.[ii] Another more recent randomized study on first-time OWI offenders, in a different county in New Mexico found no significant differences in either OWI recidivism after two years or alcohol consumption after two years between individuals who attended a victim impact panel and those who did not attend such a panel.[iii]

A nonrandomized study (individuals were not randomly selected for the VIP treatment) done again in New Mexico, showed no effect on OWI recidivism for first-time male and female and repeat male OWI offenders. The study did show that a VIP actually doubled the probability of re-arrest for female repeat offenders.[iv]

A different view of VIPs comes from another nonrandomized study in Georgia. The VIP studied involved a 60 to 90 minute program consisting of four or five victims of drunk driving discussing how drunk driving had impacted their lives. The program allowed a maximum 75 participants. This study showed that a VIP had a significant impact in reducing recidivism. After five years, those attending a VIP had OWI recidivism rate of 15.8% and a comparison group who had not attended a VIP had a 33.5% OWI recidivism rate. Almost all of this reduction occurred in the first two years, with any VIP effect on recidivism waning dramatically after two years. [v]

The research relating to VIPs is not clear. Further, future research is needed to understand content and structure of a VIP. The theoretical underpinning of a VIP suggest that a more intimate smaller group would have a greater emotional impact than a large VIP held in an auditorium setting. Further, the quality and number of the presentations made by victims may make a difference on a VIP’s impact.

As a district attorney and judge, I have attended several VIPs and I also have these concerns. The first VIP I attended was with a smaller group, and I believed the intimacy of the smaller group had a much greater emotional impact on me than the larger group(s) I attended. Had I become habituated to listening to the impact of the victims after the first time? Does this mean that repeat offenders may not be the ideal group for a VIP?

In the larger groups, I was concerned about the normalizing effect on OWI offenders from seeing so many people who had been convicted of drunk driving. Did these offenders believe that this behavior was normal behavior after seeing so many people who had been convicted of a similar offense as they had?

Further, offenders were publicly identified by raising hands as to how many were first offenders, second offenders, and so on. I was again concerned about the impact that identification had on offenders. Did those convicted of OWI 1st think, “My behavior was not nearly as bad as those repeat offenders”?

The effectiveness of a VIP has not yet been proven with any confidence.



[i] Braithwaite, John, 1989, Crime Shame, and Reintegration. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[ii] Polacsek, Michele, Everett M. Rogers, W. Gill Woodall, Harold Delaney, Denise Wheeler, Nagesh Rao, 2001, “MADD Victim Impact Panels and Stages of Change in Drunk Driving Prevention”, J. Stud. Alcohol 62 (3), 344-350.

[iii] Wheeler, Denise R., Everett M. Rogers, J. Scott Tonigan, W. Gill Woodall, 2004, “Effectiveness of customized Victim Impact Panels on first-time DWI offender inmates”, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 36, 29-35.

[iv] C’de Baca, Janet, Sandra Lapham, Susan Paine, and Betty Skipper, 2000, “Victim Impact Panels: Who is sentenced to attend? Does attendance affect recidivism of first-time DWI offenders?”, Alcoholism: Clinicial and Experimental Research 24: 1420-1426

[v] Rojeck, Dean G., James E. Coverdill, Stuart W. Flors, 2003, “The Effect of Victim Impact Panels on DUI Re-arrest Rates: A Five-Year Follow-up”, Criminology, (41) 4, 1319-1340

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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