Black Victims of Violent Crime Disproportionately Denied Aid in Georgia – WABE

The letter’s cold formality is etched in Debra Long’s memory.

It began with “Dear Complainant” and said her 24-year-old son, Randy, who was fatally shot in April 2006, was not an “innocent” victim. Without further explanation, the New York state agency that supports victims of violent crime and their families refused to help fund his funeral.

Randy was a father, engaged and training to be a juvenile probation officer when his life was cut short while visiting Brooklyn with friends. His mother, angry and confused by the letter, wondered: What did the authorities see in Randy – or what did they not see?

“It felt racist. “It felt like they saw a young African American guy get shot and thought he did something wrong,” Long said. “But believe me when I say not my son.”

Debra Long had encountered a well-intentioned aspect of the criminal justice system that is often perceived as unfair.

Every state has a program to compensate victims for lost wages, medical bills, funerals, and other expenses, providing hundreds of millions in aid each year. However, an Associated Press investigation found that black victims and their families are disproportionately denied compensation in many states, often on subjective grounds that experts say are rooted in racial bias.

The AP found disproportionately high rejection rates in 19 of 23 states that agreed to provide detailed racial data, the largest collection of such data to date. In some states, including Georgia, Indiana, and South Dakota, black applicants were nearly twice as likely to be rejected as white applicants. From 2018 to 2021, the denials resulted in thousands of black families collectively missing out on millions of dollars in aid every year.

The reasons for the differences are complex, and eligibility rules differ somewhat from state to state, but experts — including directors of some programs — point to some common factors:

— Government officials reviewing applications often base their decisions on information from police reports and follow-up questionnaires that solicit officials’ views on victims’ behavior — both of which may contain implicitly biased descriptions of events.

— The same employees may be influenced by their own biases when reviewing events that led to injury or death of victims. Without realizing it, fact-checking turns into an assessment of the victim’s perceived guilt.

– Many government policies were designed decades ago with biases that benefited the victims who would make the best witnesses and disadvantaged those with criminal histories, unpaid fines, or addiction problems, among other things.

As the entire criminal justice system — from police to the courts — anticipates institutional racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, compensation programs are also beginning to question how their policies affect people of color.

“We have a long history of victim support in this country focusing on whether people are bad or good,” said Elizabeth Ruebman, an expert at a nationwide network of victim compensation attorneys and former adviser to the New Jersey Attorney General for the state program .

As a result, black and brown applicants tend to be scrutinized more because of implicit bias, Ruebman said.

In some states studied by AP, like New York and Nebraska, rejection rates for black and white applicants didn’t differ that much. But the data revealed obvious biases elsewhere: while white families were more likely to be rejected on administrative grounds, such as missing deadlines or seeking help for crimes not covered, black families were more likely to be rejected on subjective grounds. such as whether they may have said or done anything to provoke a violent crime.

In Delaware, where black claimants accounted for less than half of compensation claims but more than 63% of denials between 2018 and 2021, officials acknowledged that even the best of intentions are no match for systemic bias.

“State compensation programs are downstream resources in a criminal justice system whose origins are inextricably linked to the history of racial inequality in our country,” Mat Marshall, a spokesman for the Delaware attorney general, wrote in an email. “Even race-neutral policies at the programmatic level may fail to produce neutral outcomes under the shadow that race and criminal justice cast on each other.”

The financial impact of injury or death related to a crime can be significant. The intrinsic cost of things like crime scene cleanup or medical care can run into thousands of dollars, leaving people to borrow, use up savings, or rely on family members.

After Randy was killed, Debra Long paid for his funeral with the money she saved for a down payment on her first home. Seventeen years later, she’s still renting an apartment in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Thousands of people are denied compensation each year for reasons unrelated to the crime itself. They are rejected based on the victim’s behavior before or after a crime.

Applicants can be denied if police or other officials say they did not cooperate with an investigation. This can inadvertently hurt people who fear retaliation for speaking to the police, or people who have no information. A Chicago woman who was shot in the back was denied trial for lack of cooperation, although she could not identify the shooter because she had never seen the person.

And, unlike the burden of proof required in criminal investigations, compensation can only be refused on the basis of circumstantial evidence or suspicion.

Many states deny compensation based on a vaguely defined category of conduct—often referred to as “contributory misconduct”—that includes everything from insults during a fight to the presence of drugs in the body. In other cases, people have been turned away because police found drugs on the ground nearby.

In the data the AP examined, black applicants were nearly three times as likely to be rejected on behavioral grounds, including indirect misconduct, as applicants of other races.

“Often it’s perception,” said Chantay Love, executive director of the Every Murder is Real Healing Center in Philadelphia.

Love brings up recent examples: a man killed trying to break up a brawl was on probation and denied compensation, the state argued, because he should have stayed away from the incident; another was stabbed, and the state said he contributed because he had released himself from a psychiatric facility a few hours earlier, against a doctor’s advice.

Long combed through the police report on her son’s shooting. She called detectives and asked them if they had told the Office of Victims Services anything suggesting that her son had been involved in some type of crime. There was nothing in the report. And investigators said they didn’t provide any additional information.

At every opportunity Long was given, she reminded the detectives and state officials reviewing her allegation that Randy had never had any problems with the police. She wanted them to understand that Randy’s then young son, who would only know his father from other people’s memories, felt injustice.

For a long time she kept information about her son’s case in a box near her kitchen. As more than 20 notebooks piled up full of conversations with detectives, Long put the state’s rejection letter in a folder so she wouldn’t lose it, but also so she wouldn’t have to look at it every time she looked for something.

“What’s going through their minds is that their loved one wasn’t important,” said Love of the Philadelphia-based advocacy group. “It takes away the power of the act to make it a homicide and puts some of the blame on the victim.”

In recent years, several states and cities have changed licensing rules to focus less on pre-crime and post-crime victim behavior.

In Pennsylvania, a law went into effect in September that says applicants cannot be denied financial assistance at funerals or counseling services because of a murder victim’s conduct. In Illinois, a new program director educated his staff on how unconscious bias can creep into their decisions. And in Newark, New Jersey, police have changed the language they use in reports to describe interactions with victims, leading to fewer rejections for lack of cooperation.

Long, who now works as a victim advocate, was attending training in 2021 when a speaker began praising New York State’s compensation program. Long tried to stay calm and get through the training, but couldn’t. She told the group about her experiences and the meaning of the letter.

Later, an employee from the Office of Victims Services approached Long and persuaded her to reapply. He said the agency had been improved with training and other changes that would benefit its case. A few weeks later, and nearly 15 years after Randy’s funeral, Long’s application was approved and the state mailed her a check for $6,000 — the amount she would have received in 2006. She used some of that money to help Randy’s son, who is now in college, pay for summer classes.

“It’s not about the amount of money,” Long said. “That’s how I felt treated.”

Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey and Lauer from Philadelphia.