Only certain people have a say in your sentence during a criminal case: the judge, the prosecutor, the probation department, your attorney, the victim, and now the victim’s parents. The Michigan Legislature recently passed a bill that will allow the parents of a victim to complete a “victim impact statement” if the actual victim is a child or mentally or emotionally unable to participate him or herself. But could this soon-to-be-law result in stricter punishments to please pushy parents?
In felony cases, a defendant’s sentence is determined by a formula based on the defendant’s criminal history, and the facts and circumstances of the case. But this formula recommends a minimum sentencing range. The judge has discretion to sentence the person anywhere within that range. In what are called “straddle cells” that discretion could be the difference between probation and prison.
To make that decision the judge reviews evidence presented by the prosecutor and defendant’s attorney. The prosecutor’s argument includes a pre-sentence investigation report completed by the probation department, and victim impact statements made by the person affected by the crime. The defense attorney can present evidence to contradict those reports or give other reasons why a lighter sentence may be appropriate.
The new bill, which was presented to Governor Snyder for signature on May 22, broadens the definition of “victim.” It includes the parents of a victim less than 18 years of age, or who is mentally or emotionally “unable to participate in the legal process” as long as the parent is not the one charged with the crime or otherwise incarcerated.
When it comes to young children, this amendment is pretty straightforward. Young victims often do not have the ability to express the way a crime has affected them, especially when the crime is violent. Parents are in the best position to explain the harm done and to advocate for their children.
But as for mental and emotional capacity, this law has the potential to allow parents to get involved just because they want a harsher sentence. No matter the age, victims often find it difficult to testify before judges. In an era where potential employers are having to invite parents to interviews to negotiate salaries for their children, the court will undoubtedly start hearing from the parents of a lot of adult victims who want a say in what happens to their child’s attacker.
To what end? Just like when parents call their principal to demand stricter discipline, judges are going to be pressured to order more severe punishments in cases where the victims have aggressive parents. This could cause significantly more stringent sentences that overshadow and sometimes destroy the few good things defendants have going for them. Defense attorneys will need to be ready to object to the victims’ “unavailability” and limit the power of the angry parents. If you have been charged with a crime, contact Attorney Lisa J. Schmidt for a consultation.