Racial gap compounds crime victims’ anguish
Bans on compensation funds can hit black families hardest
After his father was murdered in Sarasota, Florida, in 2015, Anthony “Amp” Campbell was in shock. Not only had he lost his role model and supporter, but he also worried about coming up with $10,000 to pay for the funeral and burial.
Campbell, an Alabama State University football coach, emptied most of his savings but still could not cover the whole cost. Police urged him to apply to Florida’s crime victim compensation fund for help. Every state has such a fund to reimburse people for the financial wallop that can come with being a victim.
The answer was no. His father, Johnnie Campbell, had been convicted of burglary in 1983 after a
break-in attempt at a business, and Florida law is clear: People with certain types of felonies cannot receive victim aid. It did not matter that the elder Campbell had changed in 30 years – the city commission called him a “prominent citizen” a month after his death – or that his son had never committed a crime.
Florida is one of seven states that bar people with a criminal record from receiving victim compensation. The laws are meant to keep money from going to people who are deemed undeserving.
But the rules have had a broader effect: An analysis of records in two of those states – Florida and Ohio – shows that the bans fall hardest on black victims and their families, such as the Campbells.
“I just felt like they turned their backs on us,” said Campbell, 43, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama.
Administrators of the funds do not set out to discriminate. They must follow state law directing who can receive compensation. But critics call the imbalance a consequence of a criminal justice system that is not race-blind. Multiple studies show, for example, that black people serve harsher sentences than white people for the same crimes and more often are charged with drug offenses, even though they use and sell drugs at about the same rates as white people.
In Florida, the ban applies to anyone who has been convicted as an adult of certain felonies. In that state, about 30 percent of people who listed their race when applying for compensation in 2015 and 2016 were black. But black applicants made up 61 percent of people denied aid for having a criminal record, according to the analysis by The Marshall Project and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with the USA TODAY NETWORK.
The racial disparity was similar in Ohio, which denies compensation to people not just convicted of a felony in the past 10 years but simply suspected of felonies involving violence or drugs, even if they were never found guilty or committed the crime as a juvenile. In Ohio, 42 percent of victims who applied for reimbursement in 2016 and listed their race were black. But 61 percent of people turned down for having a record were black.
Some compensation funds struggle to cover costs, bolstering one argument in favor of limits: Money should be saved for the most worthy victims. But the funds in Florida and Ohio routinely close out the year with leftover cash. Florida ended 2017 with a balance of $12 million and Ohio with $15 million.
Matthew Kanai, chief of the crime victim services division for the Ohio state attorney general, which administers that state’s compensation fund, said funds have to follow rules set by legislators.
“It’s in no way saying you are less of a victim,” he said. Whitney Ray, a spokesman for the Florida attorney general, said the state must comply with the law.
Andre Winston, 38, was stabbed to death in July 2015 when he tried to protect a woman who was being threatened at an apartment complex in Fairborn, Ohio, prosecutors said.
Kenna Rodriguez, the mother of his fiancee and grandmother to his child, took out payday loans and maxed out her credit cards to cover the $4,500 funeral bill. She then applied to the state victims’ compensation program for help.
But Winston had been convicted of possessing cocaine in 2008, so Rodriguez’s application was denied. About a quarter of the 552 denials for having a criminal history in the Ohio analysis went to families applying for help after a loved one’s murder. And in 74 percent of those homicides, the murder victim, like Winston, was black.
Rodriguez appealed. Her attorney argued the state should adopt a “good Samaritan” exception for people such as Winston, but she lost.
“He gave his life so someone else could live,” Rodriguez said. “And then they just say, ‘The dude was a felon, too bad.’ ”
State compensation funds paid out more than $348 million in 2016, the most recently available federal data show. To get reimbursements – capped anywhere from $10,000 to nearly $200,000 – victims first must exhaust all other resources, such as insurance.
States set their own eligibility rules. Most deny reimbursement to victims who refuse to cooperate with law enforcement or who were committing a crime that contributed to their injury or death. States with bans – which also include Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Rhode Island – go one step further, scouring the victim’s past.
In 2014, Antonio Mason was a college student and basketball player in Cleveland when his car was rammed by a speeding drunken driver. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
Mason, 26, applied to the state compensation fund to help make his house and car wheelchair-accessible. Ohio victims can get up to $50,000.
But Mason was disqualified because when he was 16, he was found guilty in juvenile court of drug trafficking. Drug trafficking is among the most common reasons people with criminal histories are denied aid in Ohio. The most common – 1 in 5 denials – is drug possession.
“They always say that your juvenile record is sealed, they can’t use it against you as an adult. And yet they still found a way,” Mason said.
In Ohio, Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican running for governor, submitted a measure to the Legislature last month that would allow people with criminal histories to get help on behalf of a minor and reduce the review period from a decade to five years.
The murder of Johnnie Campbell, who was shot to death by a neighbor over a petty dispute, still pains his son.
“He was always there for all of his kids,” said Amp Campbell, who has four siblings.
For three years, Johnnie Campbell lay in an unmarked grave because his son could not afford the $4,000 headstone. One was finally placed on the gravesite in March, when Amp made the last payment.
Anthony “Amp” Campbell was denied victim compensation to help with the burial costs for his father, Johnnie Campbell, who was murdered in Florida in 2015.
Johnnie, far right, Pearl and their son Amp Campbell at Michigan State University. After his father was killed, Amp Campbell says, he felt the state “turned their backs on us.”
Antonio Mason was denied aid because as a juvenile he had been charged with drug trafficking.