Legislative Victory for Trauma Victims

Posted: April 14, 2021

But We Need Your Help –

There is financial compensation available to victims of violence. It can make a major difference in their lives, covering funeral expenses, lost wages and counseling. But some who need it are not eligible. Victims of police violence, for one. Another ineligible group is families of certain homicide victims, many of whom are struggling financially. If the police say that their deceased loved one in some way contributed to the situation that led to his death, they are ineligible. Neither are they eligible if the police say they are being uncooperative in an investigation. The police have all the power, and the traumatized victims have very little recourse to appeal. Families find themselves unable to afford a proper funeral. Mothers are unable to properly morn their lost child. Absent this compensation, what are they to do? A new bill could end both of these injustices.

On Tuesday, the California Senate’s Committee on Public Safety unanimously passed SB 299. Authored by Senator Connie Leyva (SD-20), the bill would extend services to victims of police violence and expand eligibility for survivors of homicide victims. This bill would represent a true victory for wounded, traumatized victims, especially families and survivors of homicide victims who, without any compensation, struggle to bury their loved ones with dignity. This compensation is essential to their healing. For an easy way to help, go here.

“It is unacceptable that in order to receive assistance through the Victim Compensation program, police reports and the opinion of police would carry such heavy weight in the application for compensation when the injuries were sustained as a result of police actions,” Senator Leyva said. “SB 299 will improve access to vital resources for victims of police violence as they recover from the physical and emotional injuries caused due to the actions of police or—in the cases of individuals killed by police—be able to bury their loved ones with dignity and respect. Just as the state’s Victims Compensation program can use evidence beyond police reports for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking, so too do victims of police violence deserve similar recognition of their circumstances so that they can get fair access to the help they need.”

Police reports and opinion can also prevent families of homicide victims from obtaining compensation, without any recourse or due process. Families in shock at a violent loss then struggle to bury their loved ones. SB 299 would, for the first time, expand eligibility to make sure survivors of homicide victims are not denied based on the contents of inaccurate, unfair or biased police reports.

“We cannot continue to let the police decide who is a ‘deserving’ victim,” says Youth ALIVE! Director of Programs, Kyndra Simmons. “This has prevented many survivors and victims, including victims of police violence, from accessing the resources and support meant to help them heal.”

“Qualifying for victim compensation was life-changing for me after my son Jordan was killed,” says Tonya Lancaster, trauma survivor and Youth ALIVE! client. “I want to see that support for everybody who needs it.”

Under existing law, victims of limited types of crimes are eligible to receive compensation from the California Victim Compensation Board’s Restitution Fund. That compensation can cover a range of needs spanning medical expenses, burial expenses, wage and income loss and much more. SB 299 would extend this eligibility to include incidents in which an individual sustains serious bodily injury or death as a result of a law enforcement officer’s use of force, regardless of whether the law enforcement officer is arrested for, charged with, or convicted of committing a crime. This would ensure that survivors of police violence and loved ones of those killed by police are no longer dependent on either a police report documenting the victimization, which is often elusive, or the opinion of involved police when assessing a victim’s responsibility.

“In 1986 my brother Theodore was murdered and California law recognized my family as victims,” said Serafín Serrano who lives in Los Angeles. “About a decade after my brother’s passing I took guardianship of his son, my nephew Ernie. 34 years later my nephew was killed by police, and this time we were left to fend for ourselves. It’s tragic and offensive that the law suggests the circumstances of my nephew’s death means my family is not a victim. The family is experiencing immense shock, grief, pain and sorrow and we deserve to be recognized as victims and provided fundamentally humane resources to ameliorate the loss and have support through the healing process.”

“We cannot tolerate treating victims of police violence with any less care and compassion than we extend to other crime victims,” said Controller Betty Yee, California’s chief fiscal officer. “We must work toward a just, fair, and peaceful society, and this expansion of victim compensation is one small step in that work.”

“”Advocacy for victims must include all victims and survivors, regardless of who caused the harm. That’s why my office started a first-in-the-state program in 2020 to ensure that our Victim Services Division compensates victims of police violence like any other victim,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.  “I am pleased to cosponsor SB 299 to ensure that victims of police violence across the entire state can similarly access services and support.”

“When a family loses a loved one, the pain that they endure is unimaginable. When that loss is the result of police violence, it’s even more destabilizing,” said Tinisch Hollins, Executive Director of Californians for Safety and Justice. “Individuals who have had contact with the justice system are often treated as social pariahs, especially when they are harmed or killed by police. SB 299 will help end the pattern of those stigmas and sanctions being passed down to family members who are forced to grieve publicly with no support.”

“Unlike victims of other crimes, victims of police brutality are commonly denied access to victims compensation funds to cover burial costs, medical expenses, lost income, therapy and more,” said Prosecutors Alliance Executive Director Cristine Soto DeBerry. “No one should have to start a GoFundMe page to cover the costs of burying a loved one lost to violence.”

SB299 is co-sponsored by California Controller Betty Yee, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, Californians for Safety and Justice, the Prosecutors Alliance of California, and Youth ALIVE! It will be heard next by the Senate Committee on Appropriations.


Additional Background

Victim Compensation Background: Victim compensation is an important pathway for survivors to access support, reimbursing expenses including medical bills, funeral and burial expenses, and counseling. In 1965 California created the nation’s first victim compensation program, which is presently administered by the California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB). Through the program, help is available to crime victims and their family members. There are limits on how much can be paid for each crime related expense, and expenses must result directly from the crime. Additionally, CalVCB is the payer of last resort for the costs it covers. Prior to a CalVCB payment the victim or their family member must seek reimbursement from other sources (i.e., health insurance or Medi-Cal).

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