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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Critics of the program, which is primarily supported by fines criminal offenders are ordered to pay when they are convicted, also argue that the state has more than enough cash to aid victims it currently excludes: In fiscal year 2012-13, California officials reported a program fund "reserve" of nearly $80 million.

"The fact that categories of people are barred from any type of compensation exposes such deep problems with the way in which the fund is administered," said Diana Block, an advisory board member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Rogers today still struggles to understand why a victimless, nonviolent crime in her past — one for which she already served time behind bars — prevented her from getting the basic help she needed. "You keep saying you want me to get rehabilitated. ... But where do we get some healing?"

As a victim of domestic violence with medical bills, a damaged home, and a perpetrator on the loose, Rogers was just the kind of candidate the state is supposed to help. When it was formed in 1965, the Victim Compensation Program was the first of its kind in the nation solely dedicated to providing financial aid to those who have faced violence. The program is a "provider of last resort," explained Jon Myers, deputy executive officer of public affairs and outreach for the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. "We help victims who really don't have anywhere else to turn to." That means the state program can help with crime-related expenses not covered by other sources, such as private insurance or Medi-Cal. (It can cover co-pays, for example.)

The program supports victims of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, drunk driving accidents, robbery, and hate crimes, among others. It also offers aid to the families of homicide victims and people legally dependent on victims for financial support. (It does not support victims of nonviolent offenses, like financial crimes). Victim Compensation can help with a wide range of expenses, including medical and dental treatment, mental health services, income loss, funeral and burial expenses, home security, relocation, and crime-scene cleanup. "We see it as a big relief to victims in helping them overcome the trauma of a violent crime," said Myers, noting that expenses can quickly add up and overwhelm victims.

In fiscal year 2012-13, the state approved 41,470 claims, representing 78 percent of the total applications it received, said Anne Gordon, spokesperson for Victim Compensation. The state denied 11,649 people — 22 percent of total applications. (Those figures do not factor in whether a denied claim was appealed and subsequently approved.) On average, the board receives two hundred applications per workday and approves 40,000 to 50,000 per year. In fiscal year 2012-13, the program paid nearly $62 million to victims in total, which averages about $1,500 per approved applicant.

"That's a lot of services and a lot of people that we are helping," Myers said. Since its inception, the program has provided victims with more than $2.2 billion in total assistance.

Victims can apply through county Victim Witness Assistance Centers or through the state, and generally must do so within three years of the crime being committed. The state sets financial limits for different categories, such as a $63,000 cap on medical reimbursements and a $5,000 maximum for funeral and burial costs.

There are also a series of factors that render an applicant ineligible. In general, people who "knowingly and willingly participated in or were involved in the events leading to the crime" and victims who do not cooperate with law enforcement don't qualify for any reimbursements.

Furthermore, as was the case with Rogers, a person who is convicted of a felony may not be granted compensation until that person has been discharged from probation or parole. Probation is administered by counties and parole is run by the state and involves people convicted of felonies released from prison. Gordon said that individuals on felony probation or parole are not automatically denied and that their claims can gain initial approval, but they cannot collect any assistance until they are off probation or parole. And even at that time, expenses incurred while on probation and parole can't be retroactively covered.

In short, the program is inaccessible to people recently convicted of felonies. In California, that's a large group. As of January, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had 47,525 parolees assigned to its adult parole operations division. The length of probation differs by county. In Alameda County, the standard period for felonies is five years, and the county probation department supervises approximately 13,000 people at a given time. A majority of them have been convicted of felonies. There are 58 counties in the state. And there are hundreds of non-serious, low-level offenses that are classified as felonies.


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