By Claudia Lauer and Mike Catalini | Associated Press
The Justice Department proposed changes Monday to rules governing state-run programs that provide financial assistance to violent crime victims in order to address racial disparities and curb the number of subjective denials of compensation.
The proposal from the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime, a major overhaul to how states across the U.S. currently handle victims compensation claims, comes less than a year after an Associated Press investigation exposed that Black victims were disproportionately denied in many states — often for subjective reasons rooted in implicit biases that are felt across the criminal justice system.
If adopted, the changes would bar states from considering a victim’s criminal history and eliminate some of the most subjective reasons for denials in many states.
“Certain populations may be more likely to have criminal history due to unjustified disparate treatment in the criminal justice system or due to criminal conduct induced through force, fraud, or coercion, such as unlawful acts that traffickers compelled their victims to commit, and this can result in unjustifiably disproportionate denial of claims for those populations,” according to the proposal.
Thousands of Americans each year turn to the state-run victim compensation programs that provide financial assistance to victims of violent crime. The money is used to help with funeral expenses, physical and emotional therapy, lost wages, crime-scene cleanup and more.
But the AP found last year that in 19 out of the 23 states willing to provide racial data, Black victims were disproportionately denied compensation. In Indiana, Georgia and South Dakota, Black applicants were nearly twice as likely as white applicants to be denied. From 2018 through 2021, the denials added up to thousands of Black families each year collectively missing out on millions of dollars in aid.
Thousands of people are denied compensation every year for often subjective reasons that scrutinize victims’ behavior before or after a crime. The AP found that Black victims were nearly three times as likely to be denied for these reasons, including a category often called “contributory misconduct” where programs sometimes, without evidence, accuse victims of causing or contributing to their own victimization.
The proposed changes would strictly limit when a state program can deny a person for misconduct including requiring that states put into law or policy what is specifically considered contributory conduct and the process they use to decide if it is being applied in a denial. The proposal also clarifies that state programs should not claw back money victims receive from crowdfunding sources such as GoFundMe among other changes.
Pamela White, whose son Dararius Evans was killed in 2019, was initially denied compensation by Louisiana’s program because officials blamed her son for his own death. She received few details of how the state came to that conclusion and had to take out a personal loan to cover his funeral expenses while she appealed the decision. She eventually won.
White said Monday that she was happy to hear about the proposed rule changes from the federal government.
“Why make things difficult when someone is already going through a hard time?” White said. “I’m thankful that (the proposal) has happened because murders are still taking place. You know, parents are still going to have to bury their children.”
Over the last decade, several states have passed laws or made administrative regulation changes to limit some of the most subjective kinds of denials. Other states have passed laws expanding access to the funding or adding covered expenses.
But the state-level changes have resulted in piecemeal and uneven access for victims, where the victim of a crime might be eligible for compensation help in one state but denied in another.
Advocates have pushed for federal rule changes that would require state programs to all adhere to a victim-centered approach to considering claims. The proposals would do that in several areas including the bar on considering previous criminal histories and removing administrative hurdles like barring most requirements for notarized portions of applications.
Many of the items in the proposal Monday give states more room to expand services and approve claims. The proposal would allow states to apply a broader definition to medical or mental health expenses to allow people in rural areas with fewer licensed providers to find care or to allow for Native American healing practices to be covered expenses. The proposal would allow for a broader definition of who would be eligible to include people beyond a close familial relationship to a victim and allow for states to create broader definitions of allowable property damage expenses that contribute to victim safety.
The publication of the proposed rule changes opens a 60-day public comment period. It can take several months to process those comments and submit final rule changes.
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