The cold formality of the letter is seared in Debra Long’s memory.
It began “Dear Claimant,” and said her 24-year-old son, Randy, who was fatally shot in April 2006, was not an “innocent” victim. Without further explanation, the New York state agency that assists violent-crime victims and their families refused to help pay for his funeral.
Randy was a father, engaged to be married and studying to become a juvenile probation officer when his life was cut short during a visit to Brooklyn with friends. His mother, angry and bewildered by the letter, wondered: What did authorities see — or fail to see — in Randy?
“It felt racial. It felt like they saw a young African American man who was shot and killed and assumed he must have been doing something wrong,” Long said of the decision from what was known as the New York Crime Victims Board. “But believe me when I say, not my son.”
Debra Long had bumped up against a well-intentioned corner of the criminal justice system that is often perceived as unfair.
Every state has a program to reimburse victims for lost wages, medical bills, funerals and other expenses, awarding hundreds of millions in aid each year. But an Associated Press examination found that Black victims and their families are disproportionately denied compensation in many states, often for subjective reasons that experts say are rooted in racial biases.
The AP found disproportionately high denial rates in 19 out of 23 states willing to provide detailed racial data, the largest collection of such data to date. In some states, including Indiana, Georgia and South Dakota, Black applicants were nearly twice as likely as white applicants to be denied. From 2018 through 2021, the denials added up to thousands of Black families each year collectively missing out on millions of dollars in aid.
The reasons for the disparities are complex and eligibility rules vary somewhat by state, but experts — including leaders of some of the programs — point to a few common factors:
— State employees reviewing applications often base decisions on information from police reports and follow-up questionnaires that seek officers’ opinions of victims’ behavior — both of which may contain implicitly biased descriptions of events.
— Those same employees may be influenced by their own biases when reviewing events that led to victims’ injuries or deaths. Without realizing it, a review of the facts morphs into an assessment of victims’ perceived culpability.
— Many state guidelines were designed decades ago with biases that benefited victims who would make the best witnesses, disadvantaging those with criminal histories, unpaid fines or addictions, among others.
As the wider criminal justice system — from police departments to courts — reckons with institutional racism in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, compensation programs are also beginning to scrutinize how their policies affect people of color.
“We have this long history in victims services in this country of fixating on whether people are bad or good,” said Elizabeth Ruebman, an expert with a national network of victims-compensation advocates and a former adviser to New Jersey’s attorney general on the state’s program.
As a result, Black and brown applicants tend to face more scrutiny because of implicit biases, Ruebman said.
In some states examined by AP, such as New York and Nebraska, the denial rates for Black and white applicants weren't too far apart. But the data revealed apparent bias in other ways: While white families were more likely to be denied for administrative reasons, such as missing deadlines or seeking aid for crimes that aren’t covered, Black families were more likely to be denied for subjective reasons, such as whether they may have said or done something to provoke a violent crime.
In Delaware, where Black applicants accounted for less than half of the compensation requests between 2018 and 2021 but more than 63% of denials, officials acknowledged that even the best of intentions are no match for systemic bias.
“State compensation programs are downstream resources in a criminal justice system whose headwaters are inextricably commingled with the history of racial inequity in our country," Mat Marshall, a spokesman for Delaware's attorney general wrote in an email. “Even race-neutral policy at the programmatic level may not accomplish neutral outcomes under the shadows that race and criminal justice cast on one another.”
The financial impact of a crime-related injury or death can be significant. Out of pocket expenses for things like crime scene cleanup or medical care can add up to thousands of dollars, prompting people to take out loans, drain savings or rely on family members.
After Randy was killed, Debra Long paid for his funeral with money she had saved for a down payment on her first house. Seventeen years later, she still rents an apartment in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Thousands of people are denied compensation every year for reasons having nothing to do with the crime itself. They are denied because of victims' behavior before or after a crime.
Applicants can be denied if police or other officials say they failed to cooperate with an investigation. That can inadvertently harm people who are wary of retribution for talking to police, or people who don’t have information. A Chicago woman who was shot in the back was denied for failing to cooperate even though she couldn’t identify the shooter because she never saw the person.
And compensation can be denied merely based on circumstantial evidence or suspicions, unlike the burden of proof that is necessary in criminal investigations.
Many states deny compensation based on a vaguely defined category of behavior — often called “contributory misconduct” — that includes anything from using an insult during a fight to having drugs in your system. Other times people have been denied because police found drugs on the ground nearby.
In the data examined by AP, Black applicants were almost three times as likely as applicants of other races to be denied for behavior-based reasons, including contributory misconduct.
“A lot of times it’s perception,” said Chantay Love, the executive director of the Every Murder is Real Healing Center in Philadelphia.
Love rattles off recent examples: A man killed while trying to break up a fight was on parole and was denied compensation, the state reasoned, because he should have steered clear of the incident; another was stabbed to death, and the state said he contributed because he checked himself out of a mental-health treatment facility a few hours earlier against a doctor’s advice.
Long scoured the police account of her son’s shooting. She called detectives and pleaded to know if they had said anything to the compensation program that would have implicated her son in some kind of a crime. There was nothing in the report. And detectives said they hadn’t submitted any additional information.
Every chance Long got, she reminded detectives and the state officials reviewing her claim that Randy had never been in trouble with the police. She wanted them to understand the injustice was also being felt by Randy’s then-toddler son, who would only know his father through other people’s memories.
Long kept information about her son’s case in a box near her kitchen. As more than 20 notebooks full of conversations with detectives piled up, Long tucked the state’s rejection letter inside a folder so she wouldn’t lose it, but also so she didn’t have to see it every time she searched for something.
“What plays in their mind is that their loved one wasn’t important,” said Love of the Philadelphia-based advocacy group. “It takes the power away from it being a homicide, and it creates a portion of blame for the victim.”
In recent years, several states and cities have changed eligibility rules to focus less on victims’ behavior before or after crimes.
In Pennsylvania, a law went into effect in September that says applicants cannot be denied financial help with funerals or counseling services because of a homicide victim’s behavior. In Illinois, a new program director has retrained employees on ways unconscious bias can creep into their decisions. And in Newark, New Jersey, police have changed the language they use in reports to describe interactions with victims, leading to fewer denials for failure to cooperate.
Long, who now works as a victims advocate, was in a training session in 2021 when a speaker began praising New York state’s compensation program. Long tried to stay quiet and get through the training session, but couldn't. She told the group about her experience and the weight of the letter.
An Office of Victims Services employee approached Long after the meeting. She told Long the program had undergone an overhaul. There were no longer five board members who could make subjective decisions about claims. The program was now operating as a division, and there had been a cultural shift within the agency in the last decade including an increased focus to reach victims of color. She convinced Long to resubmit her claim.
A few weeks later, and nearly 15 years after Randy was buried, Long’s application was approved and the state sent her a check for $6,000 — the amount she would have received back in 2006. She used part of that money to help Randy's son, who is now in college, pay for summer classes.
“It’s not about the monetary amount,” Long said. “It was the way I felt I was treated.”
Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey, and Lauer reported from Philadelphia.