Offenders involved in the criminal justice system are often given the opportunity to write a letter to their victim as part of the rehabilitation process. The purpose of the letter is to acknowledge that the offender caused harm to the victim, and to take responsibility for his actions. Even if the letter is not sent, this exercise is often of benefit to the offender and can reduce the risk of repeat offending in the future.
What Is a Victim Empathy Letter?
It’s easier to say what it is not, and that’s a straight-up apology. While an apology can be included, this should be complementary to the offender’s accountability and remorse. The person writing the letter should own up to his behavior and display a true understanding of the physical, emotional and financial losses that his actions have caused.
In other words, the letter is more than saying sorry. It should attempt to explain:
- What the offender has done in learning to accept responsibility for his actions.
- What the offender is doing to right the wrong he has done and prevent the behavior from reoccurring.
- What remorse means to the offender.
What Did the Offender Do Wrong?
The starting point is to consider what the offender did wrong. Identify what was "wrong" about the offender’s behavior from the victim’s point of view. The key here is to consider the needs and feelings of the offender’s specific victim – not a hypothetical victim.
If the offender were in the victim’s shoes, would she be distressed, angry or upset? Would she experience a sense of loss or be afraid to go about her everyday life? Would she lose trust in the community or a certain demographic of people?
For example, a victim who is harmed by a youth offender may lose trust in all young people. The letter should acknowledge these feelings and reiterate that they are the offender’s fault alone and not the fault of society or the victim.
The next step is to acknowledge how harmful and inappropriate the behavior was, and how the victim has a right to be angry. The adage “actions speak louder than words” is important here, and taking responsibility also means making amends for the behavior. The letter should express what the offender is doing to become a better person, for example, by participating in counseling, rehabilitation, volunteering or community service work.
Include an Apology
Victim empathy letters usually contain an apology, but it’s important to phrase this properly. An apology is not a quick fix, but part of a genuine empathetic understanding of the harm that was caused. The apology should be unconditional – the offender should not make excuses for the things he did. If the offender is truly sorry, he must find a way to put this into words.
Managing Expectations About Forgiveness
For the offender, it’s important to realize that writing a victim empathy letter does not lead to instant redemption. In many cases, the letter will not even be sent. If the victim does not wish to receive a letter, then he should be able to opt out of the process.
If the letter is sent, then the offender should not expect forgiveness in any form, whether from the victim or through a reduced sentence. The act of writing the letter is the therapy, not the end product. It’s important that the letter be written in the offender’s own voice using language that is authentic to the writer. It needs to come from the heart, and there are no templates or standardized language that can help with this.
Counselors, social workers and prison staff can provide guidance, but the letter will be more impactful if the offender is genuinely motivated to start the process of repairing the harm done to the victim.
- Some may not be prepared for or wish to have contact with those who have victimized them. Abide by any "no contact" rules that are set in place by the victim.
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a commercial writer. Her work has appeared on numerous legal blogs including Quittance, Upcounsel and Medical Negligence Experts.