Updated August 15, 2013
Putting defendants in jail is a way to punish them for committing crime, but what about compensating their victims?
Courts have the ability to order that a defendant pay restitution in order to compensate a victim for financial losses related to a crime. Independently, states have crime victims compensation statutes designed to help victims recoup their losses when they haven’t been sufficiently repaid.
This article focuses on crime victim compensation. For information on the other main mechanism for repaying victims, see Restitution for Victims of Crime.
Legislation has been enacted in every state to compensate victims of violent crime for many of the out-of-pocket expenses they suffer. This form of compensation is different from restitution in a number of ways, namely:
Victims of violent crime, such as rape, assault, child sexual abuse, drunk driving, and domestic violence, are eligible for compensation. In most states, only the direct victim of a violent crime is eligible for compensation. In some states, only victims who sustained physical injuries because of the crime are eligible; in others, victims who were traumatized but not physically injured can request compensation.
COMPENSATION STATISTICS BY OFFENSE CATEGORY
Statistics from the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards show that half of the claimants for compensation are victims of assault, with a substantial percentage being domestic violence victims. Approximately 29% are victims of child sexual abuse, and 8% are sexual assault victims. Ten percent of overall benefits are paid to families of homicide victims.
Families of homicide victims are generally eligible for compensation for medical bills, funeral or burial expenses, loss of support, and counseling. Some states also pay for counseling for family members of victims in cases of sexual assault, child abuse, or domestic violence, for example.
In order to be eligible for victim compensation, most state programs require that:
Compensation can be paid even when no one is arrested for or convicted of the crime in question. Similarly, a person's status as a victim for purposes of crime victims compensation isn’t contingent on being named in the document that charges the defendant.
For example, suppose that a child was victimized by a child pornographer in County A near the border of County A and County B. The pornographer victimized a number of other children in County B. Although the crime against the child at the border was reported to police and investigated, only County B prosecuted the pornographer, so that particular child wasn’t named in the indictment. That child is still be eligible for crime victim compensation.
Victim compensation must be directed toward correcting the harm or paying the costs resulting from a crime. Compensation programs will generally pay for many of the same items for which restitution is available, such as medical and dental expenses, counseling costs, funeral or burial expenses, and lost wages or support. In some states, financial counseling, crime scene cleanup, travel for medical treatment or court proceedings, or relocation expenses for victims who have to move for their physical safety can also be reimbursed.
Generally, crime victim compensation funds are awarded more quickly than restitution. If a judge orders restitution as part of a defendant's sentence, either the defendant's obligation to pay will be reduced by the amount that the compensation fund has already paid or the defendant will be required to reimburse the compensation fund.
Crime victim compensation programs generally cap the amount that will be paid for each claim, which varies from state to state. They also have limits on the authorized amounts paid out for certain types of expenses, such as those for funerals, burial expenses, counseling, and medical treatment.
To apply for compensation under crime victims compensation programs, victims or families must follow the procedure laid out in the statutes in the state where the crime occurred. Some jurisdictions follow an administrative procedure; others require the claimant to file a claim in a trial court. Defendants who have been ordered to repay a victim compensation fund can challenge an order for payment that wasn’t awarded through the proper procedure.
In the states where an administrative procedure is used, a crime victim compensation board evaluates the application for compensation. The board will examine police records, receipts, and other information to determine whether a crime was committed within the meaning of the statute and whether the victim is eligible for compensation. These administrative procedures rarely require a hearing.
In the states that require victim compensation claims to be filed in a court, stricter procedures apply. The judge must consider all relevant documents and information, even if not typically admissible under the rules of evidence. For example, police reports are not generally admissible in court, but they are admissible in crime victim compensation cases. Judges can also consider statements from victims and family members or friends of victims. Hearsay statements, even of the self-serving sort, are usually admissible.
For information about your state program, visit the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards.
Civil law contains additional remedies for victims of crime. A criminal conviction—even if the sentence included restitution—doesn’t prevent a crime victim from pursuing a civil case against the defendant for the harm caused by the crime. Similarly, a victim who files a compensation claim can still file a civil suit seeking additional money.
In the civil justice system, there are often more potential grounds for recovery than in criminal cases, and there are often people other than the defendant who can be found liable. For example, a security company that hired an officer known to have a history of violence might be found liable for injuries caused by an assault by that officer. The funds received from restitution or victim compensation don't necessarily limit the amounts victims can recover in civil lawsuits.