“This new law will have a significant impact on providing relief for victims and their families,” said bill sponsor state Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City. “It updates and clarifies the law to make sure this critical help is available to those who need it the most.”
Once the law goes into effect in March, victims won’t be denied aid because of their criminal history unless they were doing something that contributed to the incident they were victims of – being involved in a drug deal gone bad, for example.
Other changes include:
- Removing the provision prohibiting someone in possession of drugs to get assistance.
- Allowing family members who suffer severe trauma from witnessing the crime or showing up in the immediate aftermath, and caretakers of children who are sexually assaulted, to get assistance.
- Declaring family members of people killed in crimes to be victims in their own right, allowing them to access state aid regardless of whether the deceased was involved in contributory misconduct.
Current law allows the state to deny aid to victims if they were accused of a crime, even if they were never convicted, or if they had controlled substances in their system. This will no longer be the case.
Change ‘will bring clarity’
Huffman said the change “will bring clarity and a better process for victims of crime.”
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, whose office administers the program, said the reforms were necessary to make the program fairer.
“If you’re a victim of crime, it doesn’t matter what your background is,” he said. “Somebody who has been raped who has maybe a felony conviction for drugs or bad checks, experiences exactly the same consequences and traumatic effects that anybody else would.”
Ohio’s victims compensation program provides financial assistance to victims of violent crime to pay for things such as medical and funeral expenses, counseling and replacing lost income. It is funded by state and federal fines such as drivers license reinstatement fees and court costs paid by people accused of crimes.
A Dayton Daily News investigation in 2020 found that the program provided assistance to 29 victims and families from the Oregon District shooting, but denied aid to 19 – including four because of their criminal histories.
The program routinely denies more claims than it pays out. In the 2020 fiscal year, the attorney general’s office paid out 1,987 claims – including 115 in Montgomery County -- and denied 2,613, according to the most recent annual report. The average award was for $2,882.
A 2017 Dayton Daily News story profiled several victims denied aid. They included a 17-year-old who was abducted and sexually assaulted at a Moraine motel but denied help because she had drugs in her system that her family says she was forced to take. The mother of a 16-year-old from Kettering killed in a shooting was denied help with funeral expenses because the boy appeared to be involved in a drug deal.
Payouts could grow by millions
An Ohio Legislative Service Commission analysis estimates the changes will result in several hundred new eligible claims annually, and possibly thousands of immediate claims from victims who were previously ineligible.
The report says the number of applications denied because of criminal histories was 460 in fiscal year 2019 and 376 in fiscal year 2020.
This means the changes from SB 36 could come with a cost of millions of dollars.
The victims compensation fund has fluctuated in recent years and ended last fiscal year with a $9.5 million balance, which is more than $2 million more than the previous year, according to the LSC analysis.
Yost said recent federal changes should help keep the fund solvent.
“I expect by this time next year we’re going to start seeing that fund grow again, and hopefully we will have the dollars to cover this,” he said. “If we don’t, we can make a decision about it at that point in time.”
At the request of Yost’s office, lawmakers added a provision saying they won’t pay aid to someone while they are incarcerated.
They also added a three year statute of limitations for applying for aid, though victims who were under 21 when the incident occurred have until age 24. And the AG’s office can make other exceptions for “good cause shown.”
Victims and family members of victims from the Oregon District shooting will be able to reapply for assistance.
SB 36 passed both chambers with bipartisan votes and faced no vocal opposition.
Attorney Mike Falleur has helped people with victims compensation claims for decades. He said the current strict rules were an over-correction after Cleveland gangsters started accessing the fund in the 1970s.
Falleur advocated keeping the criminal prohibition for the most serious of crimes, and extending the statute of limitations further for juvenile victims of sex crimes. But overall, he said the reforms are long overdue.
“These are changes that are necessary,” he said.
Stephen Massey, director of the CitiLookout Trauma Recovery Center in Springfield, testified in support of the bill and said in a statement when it passed the General Assembly that it “will prevent re-victimization and remove barriers for the healing journey.”