By Christopher Zoukis
Every state in the union has a law creating a fund supplying financial aid for victims for the expenses and financial losses they and their families experience; the crime victim reimbursement funds can cover such items as medical expenses, lost income from being unable to work, or even funeral and burial costs.
In 2016, state financial aid for victims compensation funds paid out a total of over $348 million; hundreds of thousand applications were received for reimbursements available up to amounts which the individual state’s cap variously from a low of $10,000 to a high of almost $200,000. Most states derive the funds from sources such as court fines and fees, but a federal government program also contributes.
To qualify for a financial aid for victims reimbursement payment, victims must show they have first exhausted other means – such as insurance – for covering the loss or expense. State laws and regulations also set different eligibility rules. One little-known one of these is that in seven states (Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, North Carolina, and Rhode Island) can deny reimbursement of crime victims who themselves have a criminal history.
The most detailed data is available for Florida and Ohio (the two states which deny the most victim reimbursement claims), and that makes clear that the denials of reimbursement because of a victim’s criminal history disproportionately affect members of minority groups, especially African-Americans.
In Florida, for example, state attorney general’s office statistics show that, among applicants for victim compensation in 2015 and 2016 whose race was known, 30% were identified as African-American. But according to an analysis, done jointly between The Marshall Project and the Center for Investigative Reporting and published by USA Today, of applicants whose claims were denied solely on the grounds the victim had a criminal record, 61% were African-American.
Florida law imposes a lifetime ban on victim compensation payments if the victim was convicted as an adult for a “forcible” felony, including burglary, or has multiple convictions for offenses deemed violent or habitual under state law.
Ohio’s statistics are similar, but its eligibility rules differ. During the same two-year period, 42% of applicants whose race was known were African-American, as were 61% of claims denied due to the victim’s criminal background. Ohio removes eligibility for ten years, not a lifetime, but also includes juvenile offenses, and persons suspected, but not convicted, of some felonies.
The last ground originated in a successful victim compensation claim by the widow of a Cleveland mobster killed in a 1977 car bombing; the victim of the gangland slaying had no criminal record so that the fund couldn’t deny the claim on that basis, but the legislature soon added the “suspected” of felony exclusion.
Other states have additional eligibility rules, such as denying claims for victims on parole or probation when they were injured or killed, or who owed money due to a past conviction, or who are convicted of a felony after filing a victim compensation claim. And some states condition victim compensation claims on whether victims cooperate with police or contribute to their own death or injury.
The restrictions aren’t necessarily imposed to keep the victim compensation funds solvent: at the end of last year, Florida’s fund balance was $12 million, the Ohio fund had $15 million.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.