Deborah Haskins used to think that homicide happened to other families.

Then in 2013, Haskins’ son, Joseph, 20, whom family members called “JoJo,” was fatally shot during a home invasion in Baltimore. Her nephew, Reuben, 24, was then killed in 2014 in Baltimore County.

When she was at the grocery store, Haskins said, she ran into a mother she knew who’d also lost a child. She let her know that there was a victim compensation fund in Maryland.

No one, she said, previously mentioned that existed. So Haskins said she got a copy of the application and sought compensation for counseling.

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But eight months later, Haskins said, she had only received reimbursement for two sets of sessions.

“We just stopped,” said Haskins, a licensed clinical professional counselor and retired counselor-educator. “The last thing that you need is other stressors of bureaucratic processes that are creating demands on you when you’re trying to breathe through criminal injuries.”

Haskins recently testified before the House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees in support of legislation that would overhaul the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, a body that’s designed to help victims of crime in Maryland. She said she’s been fortunate to have material privilege and wants to assist those who do not have economic means, noting the importance of undergoing counseling and receiving money to relocate if it’s unsafe.

The Victim Compensation Reform Act of 2024 would expand who’s eligible for compensation, increase the maximum awards for funeral expenses, mental health counseling and crime scene cleanup, and eliminate several requirements that advocates say make it impossible for many to receive help.

Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, proposed the bill as part of his public safety agenda for the 2024 legislative session.

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“This bill will ensure that victims of crime can count on support when they need it most,” Moore said during a news conference on Jan. 9 at the Maryland State House. “When people feel safe, and feel like justice will be served, then we have a better chance of getting convictions and actually closing cases.”

The proposal has the backing of a broad coalition from the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence to the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.

In fiscal year 2023, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board processed 905 claims, approving awards in 351, or about 39%, and denying 554, or about 61%. Most of the rejections — 482 of them — were for technical reasons. Those included filing an application after the deadline and failing to provide information.

Out of the about $1.64 million in awards, about $944,966, or about 58%, went to claims from Baltimore.

The legislation would expand the number of board members from five to seven people, who must reflect the racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity of the state.

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At least one member would have to be a survivor from a community that experiences “disproportionately high rates of violence and incarceration.” Meanwhile, at least one would have to be a representative of an organization that either provides assistance to victims or helps them apply for compensation.

Right now, one has to have lost a family member to homicide.

The bill would expand who’s eligible for compensation to include those such as domestic partners and increase the maximum award for funeral expenses from $7,500 to $10,000, mental health counseling under certain situations from $10,000 to $45,000 and crime scene cleanup from $250 to $2,000.

That’s along with requiring the board to give out emergency awards of up to $10,000 in total for funeral expenses, crime scene cleanup and relocation unless it finds by clear and convincing evidence that a request is “without merit.” The government would also have to create an online application for them.

Under the proposal, the board or its employees would have 30 days instead of 90 days to decide a claim after receiving the application and all necessary supporting documentation.

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The board would be able to request records from those including psychologists, social workers and victim advocates to determine whether a crime took place. And people could also first ask for reconsideration from the board instead of going to court.

The legislation would eliminate the requirements for people to report a crime within 48 hours and cooperate with law enforcement to receive compensation. The board would no longer be able to consider whether individuals contributed to their own victimization and reduce or deny assistance on that basis.

When people receive assistance with expenses that they incur from being a victim of a crime, that helps them heal and maintain stability in their lives. But that also decreases the risk that they’ll be victimized or harm others in the future, said Heather Warnken, executive director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

“This isn’t just about doing right by victims. This isn’t just about giving people in their worst, most difficult moments in the immediate aftermath of trauma, the help and resources that they need,” Warnken said. “This is also about public safety.”

Warnken led a review while at the U.S. Department of Justice that found how the criminal justice system in Baltimore mistreats victims of crime in a number of ways. She also co-authored a national publication in 2023 that made the case for reforming crime victim compensation programs.

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If people have a positive experience, she said, that can help them see government institutions as more legitimate. That’s something that can pay dividends in the future, Warnken said.

She said tethering the process to the criminal justice system is incredibly alienating.

Police reports, she said, are investigative documents that law enforcement writes for a different purpose. Warnken described the proposal to allow the board to consider alternative forms of documentation as a “transformational reform.”

The Justice Department, she said, has released updated guidance for the first time in more than 20 years. Maryland would be a leader and ahead of the curve in aligning with best practices, Warnken said.

Amee Vora, advocacy director for family law at Maryland Legal Aid, a private, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services statewide to low-income people, said it’s difficult for individuals to take court action against those that they once loved and trusted.

Many survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence do not go to law enforcement.

Vora said it’s unrealistic to assume that people will choose to act within 48 hours. Sometimes, she said, they’re ready. But she said it’s a difficult decision that requires some thought as well as a sense of certainty that it’s the right time to proceed.

She said there’s a tremendous need for their clients to receive help with expenses including medical bills, counseling and property damage related to their abuse.

“It feels like something that exists because it has to exist, but it doesn’t exist in reality,” Vora said. “There’s absolutely a need for emergency financial payments for survivors. That need is there. It’s just that this process seems very inaccessible.”

The requirement for people to cooperate with law enforcement to receive compensation creates “huge barriers,” especially for those who are marginalized and at the highest risk of being victimized, particularly Black and brown people, said Lydia Watts, executive director of the Rebuild, Overcome, and Rise Center, or ROAR Center, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Watts said people might feel that it’s unsafe or harmful to go to the police.

Often times, she said, people don’t know who shot them. But police might construe that as failing to cooperate.

In Baltimore, Watts noted, police solve fewer than 50% of homicides. She also wondered how law enforcement can contend that people contributed to their own victimization if they haven’t gotten to the bottom of a killing.

She said she believes that the spirit of the law is to help victims of crime and family members put their lives back together without experiencing additional financial strain.

When she first started practicing in Maryland, Watts said she was surprised that the system seemed to presume some element of fraud with requests for compensation.

Many times, she said, people give up because the process for being reimbursed takes so long.

“It’s almost as if there’s an assumption that someone is trying to get these funds when they are not entitled to it,” Watts said. “The delay is a huge, huge problem.”

Keith Wallington, director of advocacy for the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that offers solutions to problems in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, testified in favor of the legislation and spoke about both his personal and professional experience.

The governor, he said, has talked about the need to invest in communities that the criminal justice system has affected the most.

Said Wallington: “This is, to me, a nod in that direction.”

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