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Maryland: Convicted Felons Receive Victims’ Compensation

Since 2003, Maryland’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board has awarded about $1.8 million to claimants with criminal convictions. In Baltimore, over 120 people who received victims’ compensation had been arrested for selling or manufacturing drugs; more than seventy of those payments went to families to cover burial expenses.

Deandra M. Gaskins had convictions for car theft, armed robbery and drug dealing. In 2005 he was shot during a drive-by in South Baltimore, and his injuries resulted in thousands of dollars worth of hospital bills. He applied to the compensation fund for assistance and was approved.

Gaskins had just left work on the night he was shot. As he sat on the front steps of a friend’s rowhouse, four men in a car stopped in front of him. One asked Gaskins for the time. When he replied he didn’t know, the man responded, “You know what time it is,” then opened fire with an assault rifle.

“It snapped my wrist out of place and slung me up against a wall,” said Gaskins, who lamented his permanent physical injuries, saying, “I can’t play with my kids the way I want to anymore.”

In an unrelated incident a gang member was shot to death during an argument at a strip club. The compensation fund helped pay for his funeral. Another victim had two previous convictions for selling cocaine but received almost $12,000 in compensation for lost wages after being wounded in a shooting.

Compensation payments to people who have been convicted of crimes has upset some Maryland legislators. “The whole intention is to help people who are the innocent victims of crime or their families,” said former state senator John W. Derr. “I think we’ve got to take a serious look at [compensation for people with criminal records].” The reality of course is that many violent crime victims are in fact “criminals”. The legislature merely seeks to distinguish among the crime victims it likes and the ones it dislikes. Victims of police or guard abuse for example generally do not receive crime victim compensation even when their assailants are convicted of a crime.

Other states, including Florida and Ohio, prohibit ex-felons from receiving any type of victim compensation.

Rodney Doss, past director of Florida’s compensation fund, said “It just stands to reason that this office ... should do our part in trying to ensure that innocent crime victims that have not demonstrated a propensity [for violence] are people that are eligible for compensation.”

North Carolina restricted felons from receiving victims’ compensation in 1999. Ohio instituted a “clean-hands doctrine” after $90,000 was awarded, in 1979, to the spouse of a victim who turned out to be an organized crime member. At least eight states prohibit former felons from receiving victims’ compensation payments.

The issue has been hotly debated. “Some of these guys, I don’t want to pay them, but the law prevents me from denying it,” remarked Robin Wollford, the head claim investigator for Maryland’s Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

Sandy A. Roberts, the Board’s chairman, had a different view. “If someone with an extensive criminal background who has changed their life and is moving on and they happened to be the innocent victim of a crime, why shouldn’t that person be compensated?” he asked. Roberts contends “the issue is whether they were involved in a crime at the time they were injured, not their background.”

Lisa C. Newmark, who co-authored an Urban Institute case study on Maryland’s compensation program, noted that “[t]here is a lot of fluidity between being a victim and being a criminal. It’s not necessarily two distinct, separate groups of people.”

At least one court has agreed. When Ezra R. Johnson was denied compensation for a gunshot wound, he took his claim to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Police officials argued that the 1999 shooting had occurred in Johnson’s “territory.” They also referred to him as a “known drug dealer” and implied the shooting was drug-related.

But the appellate court held in 2002 that Johnson’s claim had been improperly denied because the denial was based on hearsay and not on actual evidence of criminal involvement. See: Johnson v. Criminal Injuries Compensation Bd., 145 Md.App. 96, 801 A.2d 1092 (Md.App. 2002).

Compensation has even been paid in cases where prisoners were assaulted or killed while incarcerated. For example, Damon A. Bowie was serving two life sentences when he was stabbed to death in 2004 at a maximum-security prison in Jessup. His father, L.A. Bowie, received $5,000 from the compensation fund to bury his son. “If you’re a victim, you’re a victim,” he said.

Ironically, upon conviction, felons in Maryland may be required to pay a fine that goes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board; they can then apply for compensation if they are later victimized themselves.

Statistics indicate that the actual number of ex-felons who receive compensation payments is small. According to research by The Baltimore Sun, over a four-and-a-half-year period ending in 2007, of 2,743 claims that were paid only 217 went to people who had criminal convictions, including 147 felons. The payments totaled approximately $1.8 million; the Board can pay a maximum of $45,000 per victim.

Maryland lawmakers have since moved to end the practice. State Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat, has sponsored legislation that would prohibit a person who has been convicted of certain offenses from receiving money from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. The bill was introduced in 2009 and 2010, but failed to pass.

It was filed again during the 2011 legislative session as S.B. 51, passed in the Senate and is presently pending in the House. If enacted, the legislation would prohibit victims from receiving compensation if they have been convicted within the past 15 years of murder, attempted murder, drug or sex-related crimes, robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, child abuse and a number of other offenses.

This ignores the fact that just because someone committed a crime in the past does not mean they cannot be a victim of crime themselves and deserving of compensation to the same extent as other victims. Apparently, lawmakers want to ensure that only politically-acceptable victims can receive compensation from the state.

Sources: The Baltimore Sun, http://mlis.state.md.us

Related legal case

Johnson v. Criminal Injuries Compensation Bd.