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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Youth ALIVE! sometimes reaches out to police, requesting that they amend or clarify statements so that a victim is not incorrectly declared responsible for the crime. From there, the organization appeals the compensation denials, a process that can be successful. But not all victims have these advocates. In addition to these more nuanced obstacles at Youth ALIVE!, around 20 to 30 percent of the victims that the organization supports are on parole and probation.

"The system that is currently in place views victims and perpetrators in a very simplistic way," said Nicole Lee, founding executive director of Urban Peace Movement, an anti-violence group in Oakland. "You're either a victim or a perpetrator and you can't be both. The reality is ... violence is a cycle. And as a society, we have to find policies that disrupt the cycle."

For a variety of reasons, domestic violence victims can also be very reluctant to file charges or cooperate with police, but that doesn't mean they aren't deserving of aid, said McCray, who works as a domestic violence counselor at S.F. Bay Counseling and Education. "When they try to separate, that's the most dangerous time," she said of people who attempt to get away from their abusive partners. McCray also noted that domestic violence survivors face risks when reporting their partners to cops. Plus, she said, "women often times stay in domestic violence situations because of their children. They are the glue of the family."

Deep distrust of law enforcement can also motivate their lack of cooperation, said McCray, who works with formerly incarcerated people as the director of the Women's Resource Center, which is affiliated with the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. "There's a cultural stigma behind talking to cops, because these communities have already been oppressed ... and targeted by police forces." And the Victim Compensation denials sting, she said. "It keeps them depressed. It keeps them angry. ... And it's just so fucking petty."

Strumpfer, the Victim Compensation chief counsel, said that the program has limitations in place for "public safety purposes." If a victim is refusing to talk to police and withholding information, then the state cannot support that individual by offering benefits, he said.

"The burden is on us to show a lack of cooperation," he said, noting that there are exceptions to the rule and that Victim Compensation would consider the risks a victim faces in talking to law enforcement. The state cannot aid victims who break the law or irresponsibly put themselves in harm's way prior to the incident, he continued. Strumpfer cited examples of a burglar who is shot during the act or an individual actively enticing someone to fight at a bar.

Ken Ryken, head of the Alameda County District Attorney's restitution unit, explained it this way: "If a person is engaged in criminal activity that's dangerous, they assumed that risk. ... The state shouldn't have to bear that cost."

In cases of domestic violence, state law states that victims should not be rejected solely because they did not file a police report and that the program should consider other evidence such as medical records or the existence of a restraining order. But victims can still be denied compensation if they refuse to testify, request that the suspect not be prosecuted, or decline to "completely and truthfully" respond to a request for information "in a timely manner."

Regarding the question of gang involvement, Strumpfer said that the state reviews applications on a case-by-case basis and only reject requests when it finds involvement in the crime in question. "It's not just a throwaway line in the police report."

Asked why the state does not compensate felony parolees and probationers, he responded that this policy has been written into law for a long time and that it is "just another condition of being on probation or parole." And it's not necessarily about saving the state money, Myers noted: "It's more of a policy decision, not a financial decision."

Strumpfer pointed out that the program is funded by offenders through restitution fees, which are the mandatory fines required of all adults convicted of misdemeanors and felonies in the state. "If you're a criminal offender, you're paying into the program," Strumpfer said. "You may very well likely owe restitution."

Critics reject this notion, arguing that people forced to financially support this fund should not be disqualified from accessing it when they are in need. (Prisoners' rights groups also strongly oppose the restitution fines on a more fundamental level, due to the fact that the fees can become insurmountable debts for people reentering society after incarceration; for more, see Part Two in our "Unfair Punishment" series next week).

Because discrimination against people on felony parole and probation is written into law, expanded access would require legislative action. I asked Strumpfer if last year's debate around sex workers' rights had sparked further evaluation within the program about its ongoing exclusionary practices, including the exclusion of people convicted of nonviolent crimes, like drug offenses. He replied: "The [program's] board members have not showed any signs of wanting to review anything else."


When the Victim Compensation program is a dead end, people recovering from violence must look elsewhere for support. And advocacy organizations all too familiar with the state's denials have focused on alternative ways to support victims, while recognizing that financial aid can only go so far anyway.

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