Unfair Punishment Part One: Victim Discrimination 

A state program that's supposed to help crime victims denies people who have had run-ins with the law or are afraid of being victimized again.

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The front door was wide open when police arrived at the home of Samantha Rogers at 3:21 a.m. on February 23, 2010. Inside the Stockton apartment, Rogers was alone, sitting on the kitchen table, wiping her face with a towel. The television was overturned and there was blood smeared across the living room carpet and walls.

Rogers didn't think she needed to go to the hospital. "I was like, 'There's nothing wrong with me. I'm okay,'" Rogers, now 46, recalled. "They could see I was in shock."

Rogers was not okay. Her whole face was swollen, she had a large cut under her eye, and her nose was broken, according to a Stockton Police Department report and Rogers' own recollection of the incident. Earlier that night, she and her boyfriend of three years had invited friends over to play cards and dominoes at their shared home. At one point, the couple got in an argument about money, and Rogers' boyfriend started getting violent. The guests "decided to leave before things escalated," the police report stated. On their way out, the friends could hear Rogers screaming for help, but they did not call police. Eventually, a neighbor did. By then, Rogers' boyfriend had dragged her on the floor and punched and kicked her in the face and head multiple times, the report said.

When cops arrived, the boyfriend was already gone ­— and he had taken her wallet and credit card with him.

Police immediately called in medics, who tried to convince Rogers that she needed to go to the emergency room. "They were like, 'Ms. Rogers, you don't understand how bad you're messed up. We can see, because we're looking at you,'" she recalled. Finally, they found a pocket mirror in her bedroom and handed it to her.

"I just started crying," she said. "My face was unrecognizable."

At St. Joseph's Medical Center, doctors told her she needed five sets of stitches, but that was not the only bad news she received. Soon after, she learned that the California Victim Compensation Program, which provides financial assistance to victims of violence, would not give her a dime of support. At the time, Rogers was on felony parole, which automatically disqualified her from receiving any aid from the state. She had been released from state prison a year earlier after more than seventeen years in and out of the criminal justice system for a range of nonviolent, victimless crimes, mostly tied to drug offenses and her battle with substance abuse. Rogers said that when she was attacked in 2010, she still had roughly eight more months left on parole. That meant the state would not help her with one of her most pressing needs — moving away from her home in Stockton where her ex-boyfriend could find her.

Just a few weeks after Rogers went to the hospital, an official from the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office informed her of the state's Victim Compensation rules. "They said there's nothing they could possibly do to help me in any way," she said. "I had to keep my cool. But in actuality I was outraged. I was like, fucking for real? Parole is stopping me from getting the support I need? Just because I'm on parole or ... had something to do with another crime that makes me less qualified to get help?"

"That makes me feel like I'm less human," Rogers continued, noting that finding a new place to live away from her violent ex-boyfriend was critical to her safety. "I feared that if he came back, he might want to finish me off."

Over the past year, Victim Compensation, a state program that reimburses victims for a range of expenses like hospital bills, relocation, and mental health services has come under increased scrutiny for its discriminatory practices. In December, critics won a victory when the board that oversees the program voted to allow sex workers to access aid; the now-defunct regulation had stated that a victim's involvement in "prostitution" leading up to the act of violence barred her or him from receiving compensation. A sex worker who spoke out about being brutally attacked and then subsequently denied aid sparked the debate. While social justice advocates celebrated that change — which is still in the process of being finalized and implemented — other activists, especially prisoners' rights groups, continue to lament the other inequities written into state law. Namely, formerly incarcerated people who become victims of violence are barred from receiving any financial assistance while on felony parole and probation. And in California, that includes people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

It's not uncommon for low-income people who get caught up in the criminal justice system to become victims of violence themselves. In this way, the program's exclusion of people with criminal records punishes some of the most vulnerable victims — those struggling to rehabilitate their lives after incarceration and who already have little to no support. They often can't find a safe place to live, a steady job, or enough money to survive. In these challenging circumstances, people reentering society can get caught up in gun violence and abusive relationships. And when they do, the state's denial of aid can send them on a downward spiral and, advocates argue, revictimize them.

But this isn't the only group that the program refuses to help. The state also generally rejects applicants who don't cooperate with police, which can be an obstacle for victims of domestic violence who are trapped in dangerous situations and afraid to talk with cops. And for victims caught up in gang activity, cooperating with law enforcement can be fatal — in some cases even exposing family members and friends to retaliation and violence. Program officials say they consider these kinds of risks, but advocates say unfair denials due to lack of cooperation are common. And as these victims work to protect themselves and their loved ones, the lack of basic financial aid can dramatically hinder their ability to recover from a violent episode.

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