Crime victim compensation provides greatly needed financial assistance for crime victims in the aftermath of victimization. All fifty states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, have compensation programs that can pay for medical and counseling expenses, lost wages and support, funeral bills, and a variety of other costs. While each state operates under its own law, the basic requirements, benefits, and procedures are quite similar. Every person who works in law enforcement and victim services has a professional responsibility to tell victims about compensation opportunities so that they can gain access to this important resource in the recovery process.
Upon completion of this section, students will understand the following concepts:
It is well known that victims of violent crime suffer physical injury and emotional trauma. What may be less recognized is that many victims also face serious financial setbacks as they struggle to pay for the costs of recovery. For some victims the most important victim assistance they can receive is help in paying for medical care, counseling, and lost income in the aftermath of crime.
The good news is that every state has a crime victim compensation program that can provide substantial financial assistance to crime victims and their families. Victim compensation programs serve as the primary means of financial aid for thousands of crime victims each year. And while no amount of money can erase the trauma and grief that victims suffer, this aid can be crucial in the recovery process. By paying for care that restores victims' physical and mental health, and by replacing lost income for victims who cannot work or for families who lose a breadwinner, compensation programs are helping victims regain their lives and their financial stability.
Compensation for victims of crime is one of the earliest types of assistance for victims. Ancient history traces the idea of victim compensation to the Babylonian civilization before 2380 B.C. In the 1950s, Margery Fry, a member of parliament in Great Britain, initiated legislation to establish the first compensation programs in modern society, which began operating in Great Britain and New Zealand in the early 1960s.
Crime victim compensation was the first type of victim service established in this country. California began operating the first program in 1965, seven years before the original two victim assistance programs opened their doors. By 1972 nine states had created compensation programs, and the restof the states followed suit over the next two decades. In 1998, Puerto Rico became the latest jurisdiction to implement a compensation program. There is no federal or national victim compensation program; each state operates independently under its own state law, but all states are expected to cover federal victims of crime. Programs that meet certain conditions (and all of them do) are eligible for grant funds through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) to supplement their state resources.
Victims of nearly every type of crime of violence or abuse, including rape, assault, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and drunk driving, are eligible to apply for financial help. Family members of homicide victims also are eligible for benefits. About a third of all the victims currently helped by compensation programs are children, most of whom are victims of sexual abuse.
Compensation programs can pay for a wide variety of expenses and losses related to criminal injury and homicide. Beyond medical and mental health treatment, lost wages and support, and funerals, a number of programs also cover crime-scene cleanup, travel costs to receive treatment, moving expenses when victims are forced to change residences, and the cost of housekeeping and child care. Programs pay only those expenses not covered by insurance or other sources that are readily available to the victim.
Eligibility requirements are broadly similar among the states, though in individual cases, it is important to check with the specific state program involved to know exactly what those requirements are. Programs generally require victims to report the crime to law enforcement and cooperate in any subsequent investigation and prosecution, though many states can waive these requirements for good cause. Victims cannot have been committing crimes or been involved in other substantial misconduct when victimized, and family members are generally eligible only if the victim meets all requirements.
Telling victims about compensation is the professional obligation of everyone who works in victim assistance and law enforcement. Indeed, providing information to victims about compensation is a mandated responsibility of all victim service programs that receive federal funds through VOCA. And law enforcement officers increasingly are being required by state constitutional amendments to provide information about compensation and other services.
Victim compensation is one of three primary types of financial assistance available to crime victims in addition to restitution and civil recovery. Compensation differs from restitution, in that compensation does not require the apprehension and conviction of an individual offender to provide financial relief to the victim. Instead, state compensation programs gather funds through relatively small assessments against all criminals, and then distribute those funds to the victims who need help. Restitution, on the other hand, requires that the criminal who injured a specific victim be ordered to reimburse the victim for the victim's losses. In contrast to victim compensation, which simply requires an application to astate program, civil recovery occurs when the victim files a suit in civil court against the offender and is paid by the offender as a result of a verdict or settlement in favor of the victim.
All compensation programs cover the same major types of expenses, although their specific limits may vary. The primary compensable costs covered by all states are as follows:
Medical care is the primary item paid for by compensation programs. This can include emergency room treatment as well as follow-up medical treatment. Mental health counseling also is an important benefit, not only for victims, but also for family members in homicides and some other crimes. Victims who cannot work because of their crime-related injuries may qualify for lost wages, and dependents of victims who are killed are eligible for lost support. Programs also pay a substantial percentage of their total awards to cover funeral costs.
In addition, the following are a number of other expenses that are paid for by some programs:
Florida, New Jersey, and New York also cover very limited amounts of personal property lost or damaged during the crime. (Florida and New York have $500 limits on this expense and New Jersey has a $200 limit. Florida and New Jersey also limit payment for personal property to elderly victimsand disabled victims.) All states will cover medically necessary equipment, such as eyeglasses or hearing aids, that are damaged during the crime, or that become necessary as a result of it.
MAXIMUMS AND LIMITS
The threshold requirement is that the victim be a victim of a violent or personal crime. Nearly every type of violent or personal crime is compensable, including assault, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, homicide, and drunk driving. Property crimes are not compensable, except in a few states in very limited amounts.
While specific eligibility requirements vary slightly from state to state, all programs have the same basic criteria. Generally, the victim must do the following:
The eligibility of a victim's dependents or other "secondary victims" generally hinges on the eligibility of the "direct" victim (the one who actually suffered the injury or death). For example, if a homicide victim was engaged in criminal activity, the family generally would be ineligible for any benefits.
Since each state operates under its own law and rules, it is important for those accessing any program to check with that program to learn exactly what the requirements are.
STATE LEGISLATION TO EXPAND ELGIBILITY
The legislation expands benefits for expenses incurred by an adult victim in relocating away from the defendant:
Until recently, Nevada was an exception to this rule, since it did not cover nonresidents for crimes occurring within its borders. However, in 1999 Nevada changed its law to allow coverage of nonresidents.
Most states do not cover crimes occurring outside their own state borders, but there are a few that do. California and Ohio, for example, will accept applications from their residents who are victimized in other states, but require that the victim first file an application in the state where the crime occurred before accessing the home state's program.
While most states do not cover crimes occurring to their residents who are victimized in foreign countries, there is one major exception: all states will cover crimes of terrorism occurring to their residents outside the United States. For example, this means that a resident of Vermont who is victimized in a terrorist incident in Turkey could apply in Vermont for victim compensation. In recent years, state programs have received applications from victims of the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, as well as several other incidents. (The federal government has established coverage of terrorism in foreign countries as a condition for state compensation program to receive VOCA grant funds, and all of the states have accepted the condition.)
The application process.
The process, from start to finish, usually averages between four to six months. Compensation programs are dependent on many individuals to provide them with information before decisions can be made: the victim, police, medical providers and counselors, insurance companies, employers, and others, depending on the expenses claimed. Some programs will try to contact providers of services who are awaiting payment to assure them that the process is ongoing and will likely result in payment. Victim assistants may be able to help in this regard as well by advocating for the victim with other service providers.
The Role of Police and Victim Services
Professionals who work with victims have a crucial role to play in the process of seeking compensation. Compensation programs depend almost entirely on people working in law enforcement and victim services to let victims know that the programs exist. Compensation programs themselves, with limited staffs devoted mainly to claims processing, simply are not designed to handle initial contacts with individual victims. Compensation programs focus their efforts on providing training and information to victim assistants and police who are in the best position to tell victims about compensation opportunities. While programs also distribute brochures, posters, and public service announcements, the best way for a victim to hear about compensation is when she or he is actually facing issues relating to the costs of crime.
For many crime victims, missing the compensation application filing deadline is one of the most painful "second injuries" in the aftermath of victimization. Unfortunately, when this happens, it is almost always due to a failure on the part of a police officer or victim assistant to tell the victim about compensation opportunities. Every person who works in law enforcement and victim services has a professional responsibility to ensure that victims do not miss out on their opportunity to apply. To ensure that this responsibility is met, training about compensation should be an integral part of the program plan of every victim service organization, police department, and prosecutor's office. A wealth of material is available from each state program, including brochures, applications, and information cards, that can help in this effort. Compensation programs welcome the opportunity to meet with individuals and groups, and usually will make staff members available to speak at conferences and meetings.
What specifically can the victim service professional do to make sure that victims get every chance they can to access financial help? Here are some ideas:
Funding of Compensation Programs
State compensation programs receive funding from a variety of sources. However, the large majority of programs get their funds either entirely or primarily from the offenders themselves. Typically, a state will require that any individual convicted of a misdemeanor or felony pay a relatively small fee (usually between $10 and $50) into the crime victim compensation fund. These small assessments build a substantial fund that is then used to make awards to individual victims. Less than a dozen states depend on legislative appropriations to make awards to victims.
Some programs are gaining substantial amounts of additional revenue by recovering money owed to victims through restitution and civil suit judgments. Programs require that when a victim is paid by the program, amounts recovered from the offender through court-ordered criminal restitution or amounts awarded in civil suits be returned to the program if those amounts cover expenses already paid for by the program. Some state compensation programs are making special efforts to work with prosecutors,judges, corrections, and probation officials to ensure that restitution is ordered and collected. However, recovery of this nature is a minor source of total program income.
VICTIMS OF CRIME ACT
VOCA stipulates that a state may receive an annual federal grant totaling 40% of the amount the state awards to victims. In other words, if a state spends $1 million of its own money in awards to victims in a particular year, the federal government will give it an additional $400,000 to spend. This results in a 72% to 28% split in state-federal dollars spent each year (i.e., of every $1.4 million awarded to victims by a state, $1 million will be from state funds, and $400,000 will be from federal funds). States bear nearly all of the administrative costs of operating the program, since at least 95% of the federal money must be awarded to victims, and only the remaining 5% can be used by the state for administrative purposes.
To qualify for federal funding, each state must meet the following VOCA requirements (every state currently meets them):
Compensation Program Location and Size
Compensation programs are administered by state governments under state law. About a third of the programs are located in departments of public safety or criminal justice planning agencies, and a fifth are in offices of attorneys general. Arizona and Colorado are unique in operating compensation programs through local prosecutors' offices, under state law and coordination.
Staff sizes tend to be quite small, with thirty-six states operating with fewer than ten people. Only a few states operate with more than twenty employees, California being the largest with over 400 workers.
Annual payouts also vary, mostly according to the size of the state. California leads the nation with about $75 million awarded to victims each year, and Texas is next with about $30 million in annual payouts. Nine of the smallest states pay out less than one-half million dollars each year.
The state compensation programs are represented by the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards (NACVCB), which promotes an exchange of information and ideas through a network of compensation programs around the country and by various training and technical assistance activities. The NACVCB, which was founded in 1977, provides a strong national voice on all matters affecting state compensation programs before Congress and the Office for Victims of Crime.
COVERAGE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIMS
Requirements that victims report to police and cooperate in investigation and prosecution of crimes can be problematic for many victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. While nearly all programs still require some to report to law enforcement, a few programs, such as New York and Idaho, may accept the victim's seeking of a temporary restraining order as sufficient to meet the reporting requirement. A number of programs also have become more flexible in waiving cooperation requirements if the victim's health or safety may be jeopardized.
Programs also are searching for ways to meet more of the needs that victims of domestic violence and sexual assault may have. Some can pay for moving expenses if the victim needs to relocate. Some states now can cover child witnesses to domestic violence, even when the child was not directly under any threat of violence. A few, like New Jersey, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming, can even replace income the victim received from the offender if that economic support is no longer forthcoming. Alabama has instituted a special process, independent of its regular application procedures, to pay for a number of miscellaneous expenses that domestic violence victims may incur.
TRAINING TO IMPROVE AWARENESS OF COMPENSATION BENEFITS
Other states that have initiated such training include New Mexico, which offers both basic and advanced training on compensation on a monthly basis, and Florida, which requires all VOCAsubgrantees to send personnel to a multiday basic training that includes several hours on crime victims' compensation.
1. Who plays a crucial role in telling victims that compensation is available?
2. Generally, what is the range of maximum benefits available to victims from compensation programs?
3. What are the five primary compensable costs covered by VOCA funds in all states?
4. Are U.S. citizens who become victims of terrorism in foreign countries eligible for crime victim compensation from state programs in the U.S.?
5. What is the primary source of funding for most state compensation programs?
NVAA LEARNING EXERCISE
Brief Description of Exercise/Activity: Following the class lecture, provide each student with an index card. Remind students that unless victims are aware of victim compensation, they will not know to access this important right.
Ask students to identify two suggestions for publicizing the availability of victim compensation to victims, as well as to the general public, and who (agencies and individuals) should be responsible for such outreach.
Process out their responses on tear sheets, and facilitate a discussion about the importance of all criminal and juvenile justice agencies, victim assistance programs, and allied professionals to make victim compensation information available to victims, as well as the community.
Goals of Activity: