Lawmaker: Ohio’s rules rejecting aid to rape, other victims ‘over-broad’

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Lawmaker: Ohio’s rules rejecting aid to rape, other victims ‘over-broad’

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State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati

Editors’s note: A months-long I-Team investigation of Ohio’s Crime Victim Compensation Program found the amount of assistance paid through the program has been steadily declining for a decade. Last year the program denied more people than it approved, and now spends almost as much on staff salaries and overhead as it gives in aid. Victims and victims’ advocates say some of the rules are too stringent for a program funded by criminals to help make repair damages done by crimes. Read the full story here.

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State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican and Cincinnati defense attorney, said the state shouldn’t be rejecting applications for the Ohio Victims Compensation Program aid “because of some unproven allegation of prior criminal activity. I think that’s over-broad,” he said. “I think that’s clearly over-broad.”

“We’ve gone out of our way to recognize that oftentimes people who are sexually trafficked have been forced into a life of criminal acts and we don’t want to hold that against them,” Seitz said of the program’s limitations.

The program has been around for decades and is funded through drivers license reinstatement fees and court costs paid by people accused of crimes. Last year, the fund collected $16.6 million in revenue and ended the year with a balance of $17.3 million after paying out $6.8 million in victim compensation payments and spending $5.9 million on administrative costs, mostly for staff salaries. The office also used the fund to cover the cost of $3 million in rape kits.

Victims compensation overview

The denial letters obtained by the newspaper often expressed regret that the state could not pay the claim.

“I don’t think any person with a heart would say people in these situations are not victims,” said Dan Tierney, spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. “We have a program here that was established by the legislature, and (the law determines) whether these people are eligible for compensation.”

‘If they’re eligible, it’s paid’

Matthew Kanai, chief of the AG’s crime victims service division, said his office has little discretion in awarding assistance and is guided by the eligibility rules laid out in the law.

“If they’re eligible, it’s paid,” he said. “If they’re not eligible, it isn’t.”

The $6.8 million in aid distributed in 2016 was down from $7.4 million in 2015, and has steadily dropped since 2007, when $14.7 million in payments were made.

Last year, new and supplemental claims rose 18 percent — from 4,616 to 5,551 — while the number of claims receiving payouts decreased from 2,948 to 2,893.

Kanai said his office doesn’t know why there’s been a decline in payouts. “We are actively working on ways to meet more people, make the process simpler, and get more victims compensation,” he said.

Columbus attorney Michael Falleur lauded the Ohio program, which he said is one of the nation’s best. Applicants whose claims are denied by the Attorney General can appeal to the Ohio Court of Claims, he said, which historically has taken a looser interpretation of the statutes.

But Falleur said too many victims are denied compensation because of trace amounts of drugs or mere suspicion of prior criminal activity. Ohio’s prohibition against paying family members of people accused of — but not convicted of — felonies stems back to Cleveland gangster John Nardi, Falleur said. When Nardi was killed in a car bomb in 1977, he had been charged with multiple felonies but not convicted, meaning his family would be eligible for compensation.

Since then the Ohio General Assembly has made several changes to widen eligibility. The most recent change, which took effect this year, eliminated a two-year statute of limitations for filing claims.

‘They need help’

Victim advocates applaud the change because they say it gives victims — including women in abusive relationships — more time to report the crime and seek compensation.

Dayton attorney Beth Kolotkin, who specializes in victims compensation claims, said the program is not promoted as well as it once was, and argues that applicants are often not told the state will pay for an attorney at no charge to help them apply.

“The chilling factor I think is a lack of awareness,” she said.

Despite some of the problems, Kolotkin credits Ohio officials for creating the program, expanding it in recent years, and offering free legal assistance for applicants.

Financial hardship makes recovery that much more difficult for victims, she and others said.

“It (the program) really does help provide for innocent victims of violent crime,” she said. “The things that happen shouldn’t define them. The need to be able to move forward and they need help moving forward.”

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