Bill seeks to expand eligibility for compensation program for sexual assault victims
New $2 surcharge on traffic violations would replenish program funds
Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee of South Kingstown speaks inside the Governor’s State Room Tuesday on her bill to reform the Crime Victim Compensation Program run by the Treasury Office. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Proposed reforms to eligibility criteria for the state’s Crime Victim Compensation Program run by the Office of the General Treasurer could offer Rhode Islanders who are victims of sexual assault a new path to financial compensation.
The program, which began in 1972, provides up to $25,000 in reimbursement for expenses resulting from being the victim of a violent crime, such as costs associated with crime scene cleaning, counseling, relocation, and funerals.
Funding comes from federal grants and in-state court fines and fees, restitution fines and court orders. Last year, $875,993.39 was given out to 260 crime victims, according to the Treasurer’s Office.
Victims of sexual assault are only eligible to access funds if they provide a police report. But Peg Langhammer, executive director of the Providence-based nonprofit advocacy group Day One, said around 70% of sexual assaults go unreported. Victims don’t report for a variety of reasons including trauma, threats, or because they are possibly dependent on their abusers, Langhammer said.
“It’s part of what we do to help people move forward,” she said at a press conference at the State House Tuesday afternoon as part of Crime Victims’ Rights Week. “But we haven’t been able to help them if they haven’t reported it to the police.”
To be eligible for the victims’ compensation program, victims must report the crime to law enforcement authorities within 15 days. They can apply for reimbursement of expenses within three years from the date of the crime.
A bill filed by Democratic Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee of South Kingstown at the request of the Treasurer’s Office would allow a medical forensic examination report to stand in the place of a police report.
A companion bill was filed in the Senate by South Kingstown Democrat V. Susan Sosnowski.
“The criminal justice system needs to help the victims,” McEntee said.
Testifying before the House Finance Committee on Tuesday, McEntee said a medical forensic examination would be conducted by a health care provider who has specialized education and clinical experience in the collection of evidence and treatment for victims.
“They’d do an examination and document any biological and physical findings,” she said. “It would be like a rape kit hospitals generally do.”
Langhammer praised the bill, saying it’s a step in the right direction.
“We’ve been pushing for this for so long,” she said.
McEntee’s bill would also give victims up to $1,000 to make “reasonable modifications” to their homes “necessary to ensure the victim’s safety.”
Reallocation diminishes available funds
Additionally, the proposed legislation seeks to increase funding to the victims’ compensation program through a $2 surcharge to the cost of a traffic ticket. The Treasury Office forecasts approximately $500,000 from these tickets.
The hope, General Treasurer James Diossa said, is to make up funds that have “significantly decreased” in recent years.
A Treasury spokesperson noted that since 2016, the fund has seen an over $400,000 decrease in program funds from court fines and fees. This dip, he said, is the unintended consequence of criminal reclassifications from the Justice Reinvestment Act passed in 2017, which reallocated criminal justice resources from incarceration to treatment in order to improve public safety.
“Decreased funding prevents my office from serving victims and their families to the best of our ability,” Diossa said.
Additionally, McEntee said the potential surcharge could serve as an incentive for safer driving. In the chance there are less traffic violations, and less revenue than expected, Langhammer said it’s still a bill she wants to see passed this legislative session.
“Either way, it’s a win,” she said.
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