The U.S. Department of Justice has announced a proposal to reform the rules that govern the state-run programs that provide financial assistance to victims of violent crimes. The proposal aims to address the racial disparities and the subjective denials of compensation that have been revealed by an Associated Press investigation last year.
How the Programs Work
The state-run victims compensation programs are funded by the federal government through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which was enacted in 1984. The programs are designed to help victims of violent crimes with expenses such as funeral costs, medical bills, counseling, lost wages, and crime scene cleanup. The programs are administered by each state according to their own laws and policies, which vary widely across the country.
According to the Justice Department, the programs distributed more than $3.2 billion to over 1.2 million victims in fiscal year 2021. However, not all victims are eligible or receive the same amount of assistance. The programs have discretion to deny or reduce the compensation based on various factors, such as the victim’s criminal history, cooperation with law enforcement, or conduct before or after the crime.
The Racial Disparities and the Subjective Denials
An Associated Press investigation published in May 2021 exposed that Black victims were disproportionately denied compensation in many states, often for subjective reasons rooted in implicit biases that are felt across the criminal justice system. The investigation found that in 19 out of the 23 states that provided racial data, Black applicants were more likely than white applicants to be denied. In some states, such as Indiana, Georgia, and South Dakota, Black applicants were nearly twice as likely to be denied.
The investigation also found that thousands of victims were denied compensation every year for reasons that scrutinize their behavior before or after the crime, such as a category often called “contributory misconduct”. This category allows the programs to accuse victims of causing or contributing to their own victimization, sometimes without evidence. The investigation found that Black victims were nearly three times as likely to be denied for these reasons.
The investigation also revealed that the programs often consider the victim’s criminal history, even if it is unrelated to the crime, as a factor to deny or reduce the compensation. This practice disproportionately affects Black victims, who are more likely to have a criminal record due to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The Proposed Changes
The Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), which oversees the VOCA funds and sets the guidelines for the state programs, has proposed a major overhaul to the rules that would address the racial disparities and the subjective denials of compensation. The proposal, which was published on Monday, February 5, 2024, opens a 60-day public comment period before it can be finalized.
The proposed changes include:
- Barring the state programs from considering the victim’s criminal history, unless it is directly related to the crime or the claim.
- Limiting the use of contributory misconduct as a reason to deny or reduce the compensation, and requiring the state programs to define what constitutes contributory misconduct in their laws or policies, and to document the evidence and the process they use to apply it in a denial.
- Clarifying that the state programs should not deduct the money that victims receive from other sources, such as crowdfunding platforms, insurance, or civil lawsuits, from the compensation amount, unless it is specifically for the same expense.
- Encouraging the state programs to adopt policies and practices that promote equity and inclusion, such as training staff on implicit bias, collecting and reporting data on race and ethnicity, and engaging with community organizations that serve marginalized populations.
The OVC stated that the proposed changes are intended to “ensure that all crime victims are treated fairly and equitably, and that the compensation programs are responsive to the needs and challenges of the diverse communities they serve”.