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Guilty victims: how states' failure to separate the innocent from the guilty is costing the victims compensation program millions.

More than a decade ago, when Congress established a fund to provide financial compensation to crime victims, it no doubt intended to aid society's least powerful members, especially abused women and children. It probably did not intend to help the likes of Hussein Barmil, a New York fugitive on the lam from the FBI. Or Dean Rossey, who gunned down a Milwaukee teenager. Or Tony Rigor, a twice-convicted California dope dealer with 17-inch biceps.

But it did. What's more, Barmil, Rossey, and Rigor are just a few of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of convicts who receive money each year from the victims compensation program, set up in 1984 for the purpose of reimbursing victims with no insurance or savings. But there is nothing illegal here. No tricks, no fraud. just an unpleasant truism: Victim and criminal are often one and the same person.

Victim advocates seldom mention this fact. Thugs, after all, don't make good poster children. Instead, in their testimony on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country, victim advocates almost universally portray their clients as innocents. Which is fine, except that all too often, a surprisingly small share of victims comp money goes to women and children, while significant amounts are shelled out to adolescent and adult males, many of whom have been injured in barroom brawls or street violence, some of whom have serious criminal records. Moreover, unless we tighten the current requirements under which compensation is granted, these not-so-innocent victims will continue collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in government handouts -- often at the expense of the very people the program was designed to assist.

Crime Does Pay

Meet victims compensation recipient Dean Rossey, a 19-year-old inmate at the Wisconsin state prison in Green Bay. Back in 1995, Rossey recalls, "I was smoking weed and drinking just about every day." He had dropped out of school, dropped out of Narcotics Anonymous, and his mom had kicked him out of their Milwaukee home. On the night of December 13, Rossey, two friends, and a fourth teenager, John Giese, were on a road trip to Illinois to buy some dope. Instead, they turned down a dead-end street and ordered Giese out of the car. They took his coat, the $1,850 they were going to use to buy the dope, a gold bracelet, his pager, and his stocking cap. And after that," says Giese, "they just told me to turn around?

Rossey, according to court records, pointed the gun at the back of Giese's head. Giese remembers him saying, "This ain't nothing personal, it's just business." Then Rossey fired. Amazingly, Giese lived. But Rossey was the one who collected victim's comp. Five months earlier, Rossey and some friends had gotten into a brawl with a carload of gang members. "[One of them] just -- POW -- hit me right in my jaw," says Rossey. "That's when my jaw broke. And I went like that and I spit out my tooth in my hand" Wisconsin's victim comp program paid more than 14,000 to wire Rossey's jaw shut. It also paid for the two weeks of work he missed at Builder's Square.

Not a particularly sympathetic beneficiary of his states victims comp program, Rossey is also not untypical. Milwaukee resident Jon Walecki lost a few teeth (but gained nearly $3,500) after he supposedly called another guy "a fag." Down the road in Madison, I found Toby Vale, a convict injured in a bar fight when he was so drunk he couldn't even remember who, or what, had hit him. He wound up with a broken leg -- and $16,723A9 in victims comp money. When I pointed out these cases to the head of the state's compensation program, she said, "I can't believe they paid this."

But people who work with victims day to day know this goes on all the time. "Unfortunately, there are career victims just as there are career criminals, and they cross back and forth across the line," says Bobbie DeLarRoi, coordinator of the Office of Victim Witness Advocacy in Burlington County, N.J. "One day they might be a victim and the next day the offender."

Criminologists have recognized this pattern since at least 1987, when a research team led by University of Pennsylvania Professor Marvin Wolfgang found young offenders "being predator one day, prey the next" Wolflang's studies also showed that, in adult years, the chance of being a victim of aggravated assault was more than three times as great if the respondents were also offenders. For robbery, the odds were between six and eight times as great.

Just how significant is the overlap between criminal and victim? No one knows. The Office for Victims of Crime at the Justice Department, which administers the federal dollars involved in the program, has never studied the issue. The agency's statistics are so paltry it cannot even tell how many of the compensated victims are men and how many are women; how many are black and how many white -- nor does the program as established by Congress require states to keep records of or even to ask questions about an applicant's criminal past.

By my admittedly unscientific sampling (achieved by comparing state prison records with victims comp records in four states), I estimate about 8 percent of compensated victims have a recent criminal record. And this number in no way takes into account the barroom brawlers and street scrappers who have managed to keep their police records clean, if not their noses.

Criminal Negligence

About 40 percent of each state's victims comp money comes from the federal government (save for Nevada, which pays its own way) with essentially no strings attached -- i.e., almost no restrictions on eligibility. Each state, in turn, covers the remaining costs of its program, then pays victims as much as it likes for nearly any crime it likes. (And considering where much of the money winds up may give you pause for thought about the wisdom of other federal programs that hand money over to the states without smart standards) West Virginia, for example, compensates injured turkey hunters. "Turkey hunting's horrible here," says Cheryle M. Hall, clerk of the state Court of Claims, which administers the fund. "They wear camouflage and they nail each other." But since West Virginia considers negligent shooting to be a crime, the state treats hunters as victims.

All 50 states have guidelines under which victims are technically ineligible for aid if they contribute to their own victimhood. "If you're dealing drugs and you get shot, you're denied," asserts Dan Eddy, who heads the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards. But often it's not that simple, says Jackie McCann Cleland, director of the compensation and assistance division of the federal program. Deciding whether a victim's conduct played a role in his injury, she explains, "is one of the most difficult challenges facing a comp program' And different states interpret their responsibilities differently. In Massachusetts, says Barbara Boden, the state's deputy program director, "the only thing we can do is deny [payment] for contribution [to the crime], and that's a pretty hard burden for us to prove. If they provoked a crime or something like that, it's difficult for us to track that down."

Ohio, on the other hand, bars victims comp to those with recent criminal histories. "This just seemed so logical to me" says state Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin, who co-sponsored a recent law to further tighten requirements. "It deals with a category of people who have committed offenses against society and says that they're not going to be able to get something back from society no matter what happens to them" At present, however, Ohio is one of only five states with such a policy.

Moreover, even with clear eligibility guidelines, separating the deserving from the undeserving can prove difficult. Many victims comp programs have tiny staffs; administrators say this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to do thorough background checks on applicants. Illinois, for instance, has just three fulltime employees to process more than 4,000 cases a year; Georgia has just two.

Such personnel shortages may explain why, for instance, it took Wisconsin years to figure out the truth about Hussein Barmil, alias Nassar Alian, alias Miko Hussein. By the time it did, Barmil had collected more than $21,000 in medical payments -- all while he was a fugitive or behind bars. Barmil's trail began in 1989 in New York City, where he jumped bail after being arrested for armed robbery. Four years later', he was arrested in Milwaukee and convicted of carrying a concealed weapon after he pulled a 38-caliber revolver during a street-corner argument. The following year he was arrested again, this time for a felony, after police found more than 10 pounds of pot in his motel room. In an effort to get the charge reduced to a misdemeanor, Barmil agreed to work undercover for police, who still did not know he was wanted in New York. Five months later, while trying to sell marijuana as an undercover informant, Barmil was shot. Although he was still wanted in New York and had been twice arrested for crimes committed in Wisconsin, Barmil was granted victims compensation. In November of 1995, while still in jail, he received $8,849.93 from the state of Wisconsin. It went on to pay thousands more, too, even though, as the checks were being written, Barmil would: a) escape from jail; b) be hunted down by the FBI in Florida; and c) be reincarcerated in Wisconsin. After reviewing his case, Gillian Nevers, who administers Wisconsin's program, told me, "I can't believe this."

Women and Children Last

Of course, many of the criminal/victims I spoke with (and, in fact, many of the people who handle their compensation payments) see nothing wrong with giving money to people who play both sides of the street. You could be a felon for something real small -- beating your girlfriend or something like that," says Tony Rigor, an ex-con from Los Angeles. "And to not allow you to have benefits, I don't think that's right,' he says. "I done my time."

A twice-convicted dope dealer paroled from prison, Rigor once had 17-inch biceps and could bench-press 320 pounds. Today, he sits in a wheelchair in an apartment in East Los Angeles, a quadriplegic. He moves only with the aid of a pad he manipulates with his chin. Rigor, 30, was crippled by a single shot fired from a car during the Rodney King riots in 1992. He has received more than $40,000 from California's victims comp program, including a $36,000 customized van and a 2,000 mechanical bed.

The question of whether Rigor's criminal past should disqualify him from receiving government aid would not matter so much if the programs serving such victims were flush. But many programs are struggling, and when money goes to compensate gang bangers or drug dealers, this leaves less in the pool for truly innocent victims. "We just ran out of funds," complains Sandra Morrison of Mississippi's program. Last year, she explains, demand simply exceeded supply, Likewise, Dara Smith of the Montana program recalls that in 1996, "We broke the bank. ... We just couldn't pay any claims out in the month of June."

Although the lack of national statistics makes it hard to generalize, many administrators confirm that much of their money goes to pay men behaving badly. "Baseball bats -- that's the weapon of choice in Newark or Camden," said Sharon Koch, an administrator New Jersey, where assault payments eat up 66 cents of every victim dollar. In Idaho, says case manager Paige Fincher, "We have lots of bar fights. It's mostly, you know, if you're a man you do it with your fist and bite somebody's ear off' Assault payments in Idaho last year outnumbered sexual-crime payments 6-to-1.

The data that do exist suggest that the program is not fulfilling its original intent. In 1995, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Justice, compensation programs paid $2476 million to 119,000 crime victims, with payments classified according to one of eight crime categories. That year, North Carolina paid not a dime to children who were physically (as opposed to sexually) abused, according to its annual federal report. Neither did Alabama, New York, or Louisiana. All told, 10 states reported no payments in 1995 on behalf of physically abused children. Women fared little better. Three states -- Connecticut, Rhode Island, and West Virginia -- reported issuing no aid whatsoever to victims of domestic violence, who are almost always women, while Louisiana reported paying just seven victims. Maryland paid 10. Illinois, including the entire Chicago area, paid only 22.

What's more, the average cost of payment runs higher where men are concerned, with the highest average payments going to cases of homicide and non-familial assault, two crimes in which the victims are traditionally overwhelmingly male. In 1995, the average payouts for these two categories were $2,837 and $2,752, respectively. By comparison, the average payment for adult sexual assault, whose victims are almost always women, was only $1,126. For child sexual abuse, it was $1,221. For "domestic assault/spouse abuse," $1,421.

Without a doubt, tens of thousands of innocent victims, many of them women and children, are helped each year by the victims comp programs. Since 1993, for instance, approximately $10,000 in payments have gone toward counseling and medical services for Amy Parker Hodgett and her two young children. "I think the program is very helpful and very essential," says Parker Hodgett, who was reportedly beaten and nearly killed by her ex-husband.

But $14,866.58 in compensation payments went to Dean Rossey, the teenager who shot John Giese in the back of the head. By the time the money arrived, however, Rossey had already begun serving his 15-year sentence. So, he says, his mom cashed the check and deposited some of the money into his prison bank account. "It worked out good," reports Rossey from prison. "It's a nice program. It helps out victims. It really does."
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Author:Hallinan, Joseph
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1997
Words:2349
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