Report finds racial disparities in NY victim compensation
Since 2021, the Legislature has considered legislation to remove barriers to victim compensation for survivors of crime. A new report highlighting racial disparities in victim compensation packages awarded by the state Office of Victim Services has made the stakes even higher.
The state Office of Victim Services receives claims to reimburse crime victims and their families for expenses related to the crime – including medical bills, counseling services, funeral burial costs and lost wages. Common Justice, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, conducted an analysis which found claims between 2018 and 2020 submitted by marginalized communities were significantly less likely to be accepted.
The report found that of the 213,000 people who were victims of assault between 2018 and 2020, only 5,276 applied for compensation from the state.
The data asserted Black people were 17.5% less likely, Latino people were 16.4% less likely, American Indian and Alaska Native people were 43% less likely to be awarded victim compensation compared to white people. The organization also found applications for victim compensation were less common for assaults committed against victims of color.
In a statement to City & State, a spokesperson for the Office of Victim Services said there was, in fact, consistency in the rate of successful claims across races and ethnicities over a broader timeframe from 2018 to 2021.
The spokesperson also said the office has a proven track record of taking proactive steps to reach and assist underrepresented individuals. “OVS continues to work closely with service providers, victims and survivors of crime, its Advisory Council and other stakeholders to overcome remaining barriers, further streamline the claims process and improve access to services – especially in communities with unmet needs and those hardest hit by gun violence,” the spokesperson said.
But state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who is sponsoring the bill to remove the requirement for law enforcement evidence to prove a crime was committed, said victims are falling through the cracks.
“These findings confirm what community members have been telling us for years: The existing compensation system discourages worthy victims and survivors – especially people of color – from coming forward to claim what they're entitled to,” Myrie said in a press release.
Kira Shepherd, vice president of organizing and policy for Common Justice, asserted the organization is committed to removing barriers that people of color face when trying to access victim compensation. “The Office of Victim Services just has to do better to make sure that they're giving resources to the people who are harmed the most in New York City and New York state,” Shepherd said.
While Common Justice plans to introduce a series of bills aimed at addressing the barriers to receiving victim compensation, the organization hopes releasing the data will prompt the Office of Victim Services to respond with action. “The office is taking steps but not moving fast enough. They don't realize how important this issue is for our communities,” Shepherd said.
Advocates and lawmakers are continuing to call for the passage of Fair Access to Victim Compensation. If passed, the bill would expand the types of acceptable evidence victims could use to apply for compensation beyond just police reporting. Other evidence could include photos or video of the crime, a statement from the victim that they experienced a crime, statements from a provider of victim services or a protection order. The changes would help address racial disparities because Black and Brown people are less likely to report crimes to law enforcement, according to a spokesperson for Common Justice.
The bill was first introduced to both chambers last legislative session and passed in the Assembly, but ultimately did not move forward in the Senate. In a statement to City & State, Myrie asserted the importance of addressing the issues with victim compensation with legislation.
“Victims' compensation is a critical tool for healing, supporting impacted people and breaking the cycle of violence and despair – but too many deserving victims are denied this compensation. We need to stand with victims and break down the barriers standing between them and funds that can help meet their needs after an act of violence," Myrie said.
Assembly Member Demond Meeks, who co-sponsors the bill with Myrie, also underscored its importance in a press release. “Racial and economic justice is at the center of our efforts as we work to address tremendous disparities embedded within our system. While there is a system in place to compensate victims of crime, we must do our due diligence to ensure that victims are compensated fairly,” Meeks said.
Advocates highlight the enthusiasm around popular criminal justice initiatives as important but argue it’s time to also focus on ways to address the needs of victims. “A number of elected officials are coming to the realization that we're not doing enough for crime victims,” Shepherd said. “This is an exciting time to be moving legislation that supports victims of New York state. It's past time – we should have done this a long time ago.”