Thousands of Americans each year turn to state-run 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.
While interviewing people for a story on gun violence in Philadelphia, The Associated Press heard from victim after victim that they had received a form letter denying them access to the funds. In many cases, the state said they or their loved one had contributed to their own victimization.
The AP sought to find out from the Pennsylvania program — and then programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia — who was being denied aid, and why.
While the programs hand out millions of dollars each year nationwide, the AP found that Black victims were disproportionately denied in many of the states that provided racial data — and often for subjective reasons rooted in implicit biases that are felt across the criminal justice system.
A look at the takeaways from the AP's investigation.
DISPROPORTIONATE BLACK DENIALS
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.
In Delaware, for instance, Black applicants accounted for less than half of the compensation requests between 2018 and 2021. But they made up more than 63% of denials. Officials there acknowledged that even the best of intentions are no match for systemic bias.
“Even race-neutral policy at the programmatic level may not accomplish neutral outcomes under the shadows that race and criminal justice cast on one another," Mat Marshall, a spokesman for Delaware’s attorney general wrote in an email.
DENIED FOR ‘MISCONDUCT’ AND LACK OF COOPERATION
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.
In some states examined by AP, such as New York and Nebraska, the denial rates for Black and white applicants seeking compensation weren’t too far apart. But the data revealed apparent bias in other ways: While white families were more likely to be denied for administrative reasons, such as missing deadlines or seeking aid for crimes that aren’t covered, Black families were more likely to be denied for subjective reasons, such as whether they may have said or done something to provoke a violent crime.
Many states deny compensation based on a vaguely defined category of behavior — often called “contributory misconduct” — that can mean anything from acting imprudently during an attack to having drugs in your system. Unlike the burden of proof that is necessary in criminal investigations, compensation can be denied merely based on circumstantial evidence or suspicions, such as people being denied because police found drugs on the ground nearby.
Victims and families also can be denied if police or other officials say they failed to cooperate with an investigation. That can harm people who are wary of retribution for talking to police, or people who don’t have information. A Chicago woman who was shot in the back was denied for failing to cooperate, even though she couldn’t identify the shooter because she never saw the person.
RACIAL BIAS IS INGRAINED
As the wider criminal justice system — from police departments to courts — reckons with institutional racism in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, compensation programs are also beginning to scrutinize how their policies affect people of color.
Elizabeth Ruebman, an expert with a national network of victims-compensation advocates and a former adviser to New Jersey’s attorney general on the state’s program, said implicit bias can lead to more scrutiny of Black and brown victims.
"We have this long history in victims services in this country of fixating on whether people are bad or good,” she said.
The reasons for the disparities are complex but experts point to a few common factors. For starters, the process for reviewing compensation claims in many states involves relying on police reports that may contain implicitly biased descriptions of events. Also, many state guidelines were designed decades ago to benefit victims who would make the best witnesses, disadvantaging people with criminal histories, among others.
This is the first in an occasional Associated Press series examining crime victim compensation programs. Send confidential tips at ap.org/tips.
Lauer reported from Philadelphia. Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey.