Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Offering Help to Victims

From Sunday's Portsmouth (NH) Herald, "Voice for N.H. crime victims: Lawmaker files compensation bill":

The state spends millions prosecuting criminals, but not nearly as much when it comes to offering financial assistance to help out the victims of those crimes.
Of the 50 states that offer victim-assistance funds, state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said New Hampshire ranks last with the amount of compensation it makes available for victims of violent crimes.
"It's an embarrassment or what I like to call the New Hampshire disadvantage," Cushing said.
Cushing recently filed legislation that would fix the disparity and also make it easier for more people to take advantage of the fund.
Currently, victims of a violent crime are eligible to recover up to $10,000 related to out-of-pocket expenses not covered by insurance or other resources. States such as Massachusetts cap it at $25,000, while California allows up $70,000.
Cushing said his bill would raise the cap in the state to $100,000.
"We shouldn't abandon victims," Cushing said. "We have a responsibility to help them. And this is a fund that doesn't cost taxpayers a dime."
The costs of the program are paid by motor vehicle and criminal fine assessments and federal Victims of Crime Act grants.
Cushing said last year alone, seven victims reached the $10,000 limit.
"When people become victimized, they have some real needs," Cushing said. "And $10,000 doesn't go that far. You may need counseling or need help paying for the funeral."
Cushing said the reason he's so passionate about this issue is because he understands what it's like to be victim. His father was shotgunned to death in the doorway of his Hampton home in 1988 by a neighbor who also was a town police officer.
Afterward, he supported a bill establishing the Victims' Compensation Fund in New Hampshire, which was approved in 1990.
"I remember my family getting a bill from the ambulance that transported my father's body from the home he was murdered in to the hospital," Cushing said. "I did not want to live in a society where we would send a widow a bill for watching her husband get murdered and then have her pay for it."
And when he returned to the state House in 2008, he said it was time to update the law.
Over the years, he has heard horror stories of a mother who couldn't afford to bury a child who was murdered or a victim of clergy sex abuse coming forward for help, but being turned away because it happened 20 years earlier.
Cushing said not only would his bill raise the cap, but it would also eliminate the statue of limits to file a claim.
"What we have learned in the last 20 years is that a victim of a crime does not always come forward right away, like victims of childhood sex abuse," Cushing said.
"Also, sometimes when a crime takes place, people shut down as a survival mechanism and they are not ready to deal with what took place until years later," Cushing said.
Another reform would include victims previously excluded, such as prisoners.
"Just because a person who is sent to the state prison because they passed a bad check doesn't mean they can't end up being a victim," Cushing said.
"They are there to serve their sentence, but that doesn't include being attacked or getting raped."
Other victims who would become covered if the bill is approved are surviving family members of a police officer killed in the line of duty and immigrants brought into the state for human trafficking.
The bill is in the House Committee of Criminal Justice and Public Safety.
Cushing said while nobody has spoken against the bill, he doesn't know if it will pass.
"The reality is victims are not an organized force in the state," Cushing said. "They don't have a lobbyist in Concord fighting on their behalf.
"I would hope it would pass. My hope with this bill is to ensure that we don't re-victimize people who have already been raped or lost a loved one. We should do what we can or at least offer what other states offer to make them whole."

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