Speight: ‘We Can Do More To Boost The Efforts Of The Victims of Crime Compensation Office’

By Insider NJ | February 6, 2020

BY ASSEMBLYWOMAN SHANIQUE SPEIGHT

Shanique Speight

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In communities like my hometown of Newark, we know all too well how quickly senseless violence can lead to more heartbreaking tragedy.

It struck one Newark woman in a matter of seconds. One moment, she was standing at a candle light vigil in her community. The next, she was shot.

She came to me after the incident to share her story, long after she was questioned by police, treated at the hospital, and discharged without knowing what her next steps should be. How do you go back to normal life after experiencing severe trauma? She wondered, would anything ever feel normal again?

Her fears were warranted. In the aftermath of trauma, victims face new burdens that make it even more difficult to regain normalcy. Injury recovery. Hospital bills. Therapy. More bills. Nightmares. The realization that maybe, because of their injuries, they will never be able earn a living the same way again.

New Jersey has a number of resources that she could have turned to for support, but she was never made aware of them by medical staff or police. Victims’ support services – as wonderful as they are – are no use if victims don’t know they exist.

The Victims of Crime Compensation Office (VCCO) in the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety tries to reach as many victims as it can, offering financial support to mitigate the economic and emotional burdens of trauma. It serves victims of crimes like assault, kidnapping, carjacking and human trafficking. The VCCO can help cover medical bills, offer counseling, provide stipends for lost income, and so much more.

Two laws I sponsored ensure more victims are connected to this resource, and that their best interests are served. The first expands training for law enforcement on how to engage with crime victims; the other requires three members of the VCCO Board to have expertise in victims’ rights, and at least one member to have experienced trauma related to criminal victimization.

This is a step, but it’s not yet enough. We can do more to boost the efforts of the VCCO and similar agencies. We can do more to help victims of crime get back on their feet.

We can begin by fixing a flaw in the VCCO’s compensation system; the application and eligibility determination process takes six months, thus victims often need to wait over half a year before receiving benefits. A person weighed down by medical bills doesn’t have that long to wait. They need, and deserve, to be compensated much quicker.

Timing also presents a different challenge for victims. They must file a claim with VCCO within three years of the date of injury, but we know the mental and emotional impacts of trauma can surface long after that. And because of the lack of awareness surrounding the VCCO, victims may not be aware of it until much later.

Another complication is that not all crime victims are eligible for compensation from VCCO, such as a person who engaged in illegal activity at the time of the crime. It’s certainly more than reasonable that the VCCO screen all applicants, but this process may intimidate victims and prevent them from applying in the first place, even though they may be eligible. If all were presumed eligible, their case would be guaranteed for review by the VCCO Board.

It’s time we amend State law to make the VCCO compensation process simpler and fairer. This legislative session, I’m working to raise awareness for the VCCO; expedite the VCCO eligibility process; expand the length of time a victim has to make a claim; and require the VCCO to adopt a presumed eligibility policy with the hopes of encouraging victims to apply regardless of their circumstances. All applicants will be still be screened, but with these changes, victims will be able to take advantage of resources faster.

My other goals include improving communication between hospitals, community organizations, law enforcement, the courts and the VCCO so that all victims receive the supports and services they need.

Violent crime happens more often than we may realize. In December of 2019 alone, 72 people were victims of shootings. However, living through trauma is only the beginning for victims of violent crime. We should do all we can to make their journey to recovery, and to their new normalcy, as smooth as possible.

We should never forget that at any split second, our lives could dramatically change, and we could need help too.

Assemblywoman Shanique Speight represents the 29th legislative district in the New Jersey General Assembly, spanning eastern Newark and Belleville. She recently introduced legislation (A-1082 and A-1083) aimed to improve the Victims of Crime Compensation Office.

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