In the fall of 2009, Oakland resident Ruben Leal got shot but it’s only now that he’s able to talk about it. One bullet entered the left side of his chest, leading to a collapsed lung. The other shattered his right shinbone. Leal was 21 and he describes his situation then and now as, "just me on my own." He felt the weight of the physical rehabilitation and mental recovery that lay ahead but staring him down, too, was more than $100,000 in medical bills.
So after a three-week hospital stay, a caseworker helped Leal to apply for victim compensation from California’s Victim Compensation Board (CalVCP). Like its sister agencies in other states, CalVCP is a last resort fund. State victim compensation boards typically provide limited financial assistance to victims of violent crime or their family members when no other funding sources are available or options like private insurance or civil lawsuits have been exhausted. Other eligibility considerations determining, who is and isn’t a "proper" victim, also apply. Those requirements, advocates in California and other states say, disproportionately hurt victims and survivors living in communities already battered by high crime, mass incarceration and one-size-fits-all aggressive policing.
CalVCP rejected Leal’s application for, he says, not cooperating with police. At the time of the shooting Leal had been named to Oakland’s controversial gang injunction list and was being investigated.
"I felt helpless," Leal says of receiving CalVCP’s rejection letter. "If you’ve been the victim of a very traumatic crime, you’d think programs like VCP would be there to show some kind of support. But it’s like you’re being re-victimized all over again."
This December, after a nearly yearlong protest begun by a raped sex worker and, multiple public hearings, CalVCP revoked a 15-year rule barring prostitutes who’ve been raped from receiving victim compensation. It’s the latest in a series of small changes to how victim compensation is doled out, that’s causing some advocates to hope that reform may finally be on the table. It’s also a change that’s especially of note for victims with criminal records and their family members. Individuals convicted of federal and certain state crimes, not taxpayers, fund victim compensation. Generally, those who pay into the fund are also ineligible from receiving financial assistance.
"I’m very happy for the sex workers," says self-described revolutionary, Ida McCray. "But what about the women with felonies?"
McCray is a founding member of All of Us Or None, which participated in last year’s protest. She has also directed the women’s resource center at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department for the last 17 years and is a domestic violence counselor. She has witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of victim compensation denials on poor black and Latina women in particular.
"A lot of women have been sentenced unjustly behind these drug laws and they’ve also been victimized repeatedly," McCray says. "One woman almost had her eye knocked out and because she had a record, she couldn’t get anything."
At least seven states in 2012, according to a publication of the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards (NACVCB), were required by statute to deny claims from victims with "serious prior criminal records." They are Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Washington. But criminal record eligibility regulations and practices vary widely from state to state. Some state boards are given discretion to consider but not outright deny those with criminal records. Others prohibit compensation only to those with violent felonies, victims with felony drug convictions, or individuals on parole or probation.
One North Carolina mom was denied victim compensation that would have helped bury her 27-year-old son, Maurice Streeter, after he was shot and killed early last year. According to press reports, the denial letter from her state’s compensation board found that he had been "participating in a non-traffic misdemeanor at or about the time (his) injury had occurred." That could mean carrying marijuana or being involved in a fight. Streeter was shot in the back, in daylight, while walking to meet a friend.
One common misperception of victim compensation programs is the presumption that they are taxpayer funded. They are not. At sentencing, people convicted of federal and other state crimes, including DUIs, are mandated to contribute to victim funds. That’s in addition, if applicable, to paying restitution directly to victims created by their crime.
"If a mom puts $60 [in the commissary] for her son who’s in prison, he only receives $25 and the rest goes into the victim fund," Leal says. "Folks I know personally pay into that fund and some of those people are being denied compensation."
Robert Rooks, organizing director of the statewide Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice network at Californians for Safety and Justice, says there are many problems with victim compensation programs. He’s most concerned with making them accessible to needy populations, who often don’t know help exists, and has helped advocate for victim compensation dollars to be funneled into local community trauma centers. Another key goal is dismantling the notion of penalizing victims for, "contributing to their own victimization." It’s an idea, he says, that dates back to the "tough on crime" sentencing era that began in California more than 30 years ago.
"I want VCP to look at that category and see if it’s even useful anymore," Rooks says. "When I talk to victim service advocates who’re helping people to apply for compensation, they’re telling me that’s the one that is responsible for the most denials."
Denials to lower income residents of high crime, high incarceration communities often means, Rooks says, denying assistance to people who’ve often experienced or witnessed repeated chronic traumas.
"There’s this saying that’s emerged in California, that "hurt people hurt people," Rooks says. "If you leave a victim without giving them the support they need it’s possible that could result in them lashing out and hurting other people."
Leal says he’s among the lucky ones. After a local Oakland group, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) reached out to him, he began volunteering. He now works part-time for CURYJ with high school students and, he belongs to All of Us or None.
"I found some support," Leal says. "But I’ve seen folks who, after they went through trauma, turned to drugs and alcohol and that’s what make them feel good. But it’s a crutch that masks that pain. And sometimes that can lead into folks committing those same violent acts that somebody did to them onto somebody else as a way of coping."
The woman at the center of last year’s sex worker protest against CalVCP goes by Ms. R. She is a young white woman in her 30s with a teenage girl’s voice and a memorable laugh that does not hint at her recent trauma. In 2012, she was raped and beaten in her own home. With her mother’s help, she immediately applied for victim compensation and vividly recalls reading the letter denying her application on the grounds that she was involved in prostitution-related activities.
"This [victim compensation] system is designed for people way worse off than me," she says, reflecting on the last year of seeing others take on her fight because it is also their own. "[And I know] they treated someone way worse off than me as bad as me."
"I have a lot of what I need already," Ms. R continues, speaking of her parents and a great high school English teacher in particular. "But what about the person in my predicament who can’t feed their kids tomorrow? What is it like for that victim?"
I’m reporting on victim compensation issues for The Investigative Fund and I’m looking for stories from people who’ve been denied victim compensation. Please email cmurphy(at)raceforward(dot)org.