The Demise of the Crime Victims Compensation Program: the Impact of the Recession on Victims of Criminal Acts

     Washington State has, since 1973, provided financial assistance to the innocent victims of criminal acts. Beginning in 2010, however, the state legislature initiated a draconian curtailment of the benefits available to victims such that the program is but a shadow of its former self. With all the tragedies in the news as of late, it would be wise to pause and consider our duty as a society to provide for the victims of criminal acts. Because once the media frenzy is over and the memory of such events is but a distant spark in our collective consciousness, those victims will be all but forgotten—though they and their families will live with the tragedy and bear its consequences for the rest of their lives.


With all the tragedies in the news as of late, it would be wise to pause and consider our duty as a society to provide for the victims of criminal acts.


     The crime victim compensation movement grew out of the work of British prison reformer Margery Fry. In a 1957 article published in The Observer, Ms. Fry advocated for financial reimbursement to crime victims from the state; her vision was borne out of a deep sympathy for humanity as well as the notion that providing for victims of criminal acts would reduce the retributive aspect of the criminal justice system (thereby increasing the rehabilitative function).[1] The program she envisioned was to be patterned upon extant workers’ compensation programs.[2]


     The first country to pass a crime victim compensation law was New Zealand in 1963 followed closely by Great Britain. California was the first state to implement a crime victim compensation program in 1965, and by 1972 ten states in total had passed such an act. In 1973, Washington State passed “AN ACTRelating to special proceedings; providing benefits to victims of crime”—colloquially known as the Crime Victims Compensation Act.[3] The 1973 Act provided explicitly that victims of criminal acts would be provided the same benefits afforded to injured workers under the Industrial Insurance Act.[4] Consequently, the legislature entrusted the Department of Labor & Industries with management of all crime victims’ claims.


     The Crime Victims Compensation Program (CVCP) is funded through a combination of federal grants and state money. Prior to 2010, the CVCP was funded through appropriations by the Department of Labor & Industries. In 2010, however, L&I reported that it had “exhausted” its current appropriation for the CVCP and requested legislation creating a new, separate crime victims compensation account.[5]


     When the Washington State Legislature passed the requested law in 2010, it effectively severed funding of the CVCP from the L&I funds. The intent was to create a separate, untouchable fund. But bad drafting meant that an assumed source of revenue for the crime victims compensation account—a percentage of superior court-imposed criminal fines—never materialized, leaving a $670,000 hole in an annual budget of $2.7 million.[6] Unfortunately, in addition to severing the CVCP’s source of revenue, the legislature also drastically reduced the benefits available to crime victims. The legislature imposed an arbitrary cap of $50,000 on all claims and limited the amount of permanent partial disability benefits payable to $7,000.  


     Finally, in 2011 the legislature delivered the coup de grâce.[7] In addition to completely severing all references to the Industrial Insurance Act from the CVCA, the legislature completely eliminated future permanent partial disability payments and limited wage replacement benefits to $15,000.[8]


     In an era in which a single surgical procedure can easily run into the six-figure range, and serious injuries can result in the inability to work for years if not permanently, the arbitrary cap and drastic curtailment of compensation for victims of criminal acts is unconscionable. The costs associated with such injuries undoubtedly fall upon society’s shoulders, whether through increased use of other public benefits (unemployment, Medicare, welfare), or, worse yet, bankruptcy. According to a 2007 study by researchers at Harvard, outstanding medical bills account for an astounding 62.1% of all personal bankruptcy filings in the United States.[9] By failing to provide for the victims of criminal acts, the legislature is simply foisting the cost of uncompensated injuries back upon the public.


     It goes without saying that Washington State—and the rest of the country—faced a dire fiscal shortfall in 2010. Washington’s response, like that of the rest of the country, was unfortunately myopic, cutting funds to schools, universities, parks, and crime victims. We still face an uncertain future and an impending fiscal “cliff.” The question really is how much further Washington (and the rest of the country) is willing to cut into its social safety net. Next time you think about reduction of benefits to crime victims, think about Sandy Hook. Think about Clackamas Town Center. Or Virginia Tech, Columbine, etc. Unfortunately, the list goes on and on. Think about those events because it is those victims whom these types of budget cuts harm. The budget should not be balanced on the backs of victims of criminal acts. It is fiscally and morally irresponsible. We owe it to ourselves to provide for the most vulnerable members of society.  

Photo credit: zenobia_joy / Foter / CC BY-NC

[1] See Various, Compensation for Victims of Criminal Violence: A Round Table, 8 J. Pub. L. 191 (1959).

[2] Frank Weed, Certainty of Justice: Reform of the Crime Victim Movement 4 (1995).

[3] Laws of 1973, ch. 122.

[4] Id. § 1.

[5] Laws of 2010, ch. 122 §§ 3-7.

[6] See Fiscal Note accompanying SSB 5691, Laws of 2011, ch. 346.

[7] Laws of 2011, ch. 346.

[8] Curiously the legislature also removed acts of terrorism from the list of criminal acts for which an individual is entitled to compensation under the CVCA. During debates in committee, when asked why this provision was inserted into the bill, L&I’s delegate did not know.

[9] Himmelstein et al., Medical Bankruptcy in the United States, 2007: Results of a National Study, 122 Am. J. Med. 741 (2009).