Reform crime victim compensation to increase benefits, improve access, reduce barriers, and promote standardization across jurisdictions.
Every state has a program to reimburse crime victims for specified out-of-pocket expenses relating to the crime. These programs generally require victims to report the offense within a short period of time and cooperate in the prosecution. They cap the amount recoverable for various categories of expenses—as well as the overall amount payable to a crime victim—and these caps vary among states. The federal government, through the Crime Victims Fund, or VOCA Fund, reimburses states for 60 percent of the state payment for compensation. Convicted offenders can be ordered to pay restitution to their victims for additional expenses, and to compensation programs to reimburse them for payment to the victims.
This system, while providing important assistance to many victims, has left others with unmet needs.
Many victims do not meet the eligibility requirements for victim compensation. Programs generally require reporting of the crime within a short timeframe; however, many traumatized victims wait months or years to report the crime. Most programs also have deadlines for filing a compensation claim, but many victims do not learn about crime victim compensation until it is too late to file, are too overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the crime to apply, or do not recognize their need for counseling or other assistance until years after the crime. Eligibility for victim compensation is also generally linked to cooperation with the criminal justice system as well as the formal filing of a report. While states are permitted to make limited exceptions to such reporting and cooperation requirements, such as providing that in sexual assault cases it is sufficient for a victim to receive a forensic exam, and in domestic violence cases it is sufficient if a victim seeks a protective order. However, these exceptions have not been adopted uniformly. And states may reduce or deny an application for victim compensation depending on “contributory conduct,” which is defined unevenly.
These eligibility restrictions on victim compensation can have a discriminatory effect. For example, “contributory misconduct” may be interpreted to include any past affiliation with members of a gang, whether or not that affiliation is shown to be connected to the crime. The requirement to report an offense immediately or cooperate in prosecution may be a barrier to victims in communities that do not trust law enforcement.
Even where victims are eligible for compensation, it may not meet their needs. Victim compensation benefits are generally restricted to a list of eligible expenses. While they may cover an amount of lost wages, they can’t cover other—often modest—expenses that could help a victim retain employment or gain new employment, such as making needed repairs to a damaged vehicle. While they may cover counseling for a surviving family member of a homicide victim, they may not cover relocation expenses to allow a survivor to move from the scene of the crime.
Furthermore, because crime victim compensation is a reimbursement system, victims must ordinarily incur the expense and then wait—sometimes for many months—to be approved for coverage. This lag can be especially problematic for immediate expenses, such as crime scene cleanup after a violent death, or for funeral or burial expenses. Systems must be devised to better fund these expenses immediately. For example, a compensation program might pay these immediate emergency costs if there is a preliminary indication of eligibility, and only in the event of fraudulent filing or clear evidence of contributory misconduct on the part of the direct victim seek reimbursement. Victim service organizations might be tapped to serve as intermediaries for smaller out-of-pocket expenses that are barriers for some victims (such as the cost of transportation or lock changes) and then seek reimbursement from the compensation program.
Because compensation programs are generally limited to victims of violent crime, victims of financial or property crime are left without important resources to help them recover. While victims of fraud, identity theft, or financial exploitation often suffer significant emotional distress, they are not eligible in most states to seek compensation for mental health counseling. Even fewer states fund the important financial counseling that many of those victims need to rebuild their financial stability.
There are also limitations on funding for compensation programs, which must be addressed if compensation is to be expanded. Federal support is tied to the amount of state dollars spent on compensation. Many state funding mechanisms are insufficient to meet the demand for compensation; some compensation programs routinely run out of compensation dollars before the end of the year.
As a first step toward the goal of reforming victim compensation, we call for a comprehensive examination of our current crime victim compensation program, to identify:
- Gaps in victim access to compensation,
- Gaps in compensation benefits available,
- Victim outcomes from current compensation programs, and
- Current funding mechanisms and any need for additional funding to support comprehensive benefits.