Victim-Offender Panels (VOP) can be attributed to the rise of the victims' rights movement in the last two decades, and in particular to the campaign against drunk driving. They were developed as a means of giving convicted drunk drivers an appreciation of the human cost of drunk driving on victims and survivors, with the intention of decreasing the likelihood of repeat offenses. It also offered victims and survivors a forum in which to express their experience and thereby restore some sense of power to the victims of crime.
One notable example of a VOP in application is the Victim Impact Panel (VIP) organized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). This panel provides an opportunity for offenders to express remorse and for victims to express the impact that drunk driving has had on their lives.
Developed as a program to deter repeat drunk driving offenders, judges order offenders to attend a VIP as a condition of probation to listen to victims of drunk driving. The purpose of the panel is to provide a constructive atmosphere that allows victims to express their grief amongst others suffering from the effects of drunk driving. The expression of grief in a supportive atmosphere is thought to be conducive to the healing process (Mercer, Lorden and Lord, 1995 at 11-12). Furthermore, victims may derive some satisfaction from knowing that they may help to save lives by changing offenders' attitudes about drunk driving (Lord, 1990 at 10-11). The process of telling one's story may be therapeutic in itself.
Moreover, offenders must confront the real human consequences of their drunk driving, hopefully with the ultimate effect of changing their attitudes and behaviors (Mercer, Lorden and Lord, 1995 at 6). The VIP, then, can allow offenders to see first-hand the pain and suffering that drunk driving causes to other victims; to help offenders acknowledge their own responsibilities instead of blaming these misfortunes on "bad luck"; to break through the denial of having a drug or alcohol problem; leave an impression in the minds of the victims of drunk driving in the minds of offenders, with the hope that it will change their drunk driving behaviors (Lord, 1990 at 9).
VOPs provide an opportunity for indirect encounter when either the victim or offender is unwilling or unable to meet the other. A VOP is comprised of unrelated victims and offenders linked only by a common kind of crime, not the particular crimes that involved the others. The panel may help bring closure to the victim and to expose offenders to the harms that they have caused by providing an opportunity for the parties to speak about their experiences.
With the VIP operated by MADD, for example, judges or probation officers will often require convicted drunk driving offenders to attend a panel as an element of their sentences or probation. Attendance is monitored, with sanctions assessed for failure to attend.
The MADD chapters choose three or four victims for whom it would be helpful to speak about the impact that drunk driving has had on their lives without attempting to blame or judge offenders in attendance (Lord, 1990 at 21). A moderator is present to monitor the panel, and guidelines are issued to panelists (Lord, 1990 at 22-23). No victim ever speaks on a panel at which their own offender is present, and victims do not divulge personal information about their offenders (Lord, 1990 at 6; 21). The panel does not serve as a forum for dialogue between victims and offenders, unless the victims agree to answer offenders' questions (Lord, 1990 at 6).
Offenders and others (such as judges, probation officers, law enforcement officers and persons in alcohol treatment programs) may be present (Lord, 1990 at 22). These persons may serve as panelists, speaking about the effect that drunk driving has had on their lives. In a MADD coordinated program, a majority of the panelists must be victims, and, if offenders are chosen to serve as panelists, they must express genuine remorse and cannot personally profit from speaking through accelerated probation, parole or prison release (Lord, 1990 at 7).
Studies suggest that VOPs have significant benefits. For example, the VIP organized by MADD shows dramatic changes in the attitudes of offenders toward drunk driving and in the likelihood of recidivism: one study showed that 87% of panelist offenders said they would continue to drink and drive before participating, but 90% said they would never drink and drive gain following the panel meeting. Another study showed that the recidivism rate was as much as 5 times greater for nonparticipants than for participants.
The VOP appears to benefit victim participants as well. At least 82%of participant victims state that the panel had facilitated their healing (Lord, 1990 at 14). "These results were even more dramatic when compared with a control group of nonparticipants and when other variables (such as counseling and elapsed time since crash) were controlled for: participants manifested a higher sense of well-being, lower anxiety and less anger than nonparticipants" (Van Ness and Strong, 1997 at 76).
This document prepared by Christopher Bright. Copyright Prison Fellowship International.