Under the current system, those harmed in violent crimes can be paid for medical costs and related expenses, but prostitutes are excluded because their activities are illegal.
California is the only state in the nation with such a provision, said Jon Myers, deputy executive officer of the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board.
“We’re kind of all alone on that,” he said. “The idea, back in the late ‘90s, was to get tougher on crime.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and organizations representing sex trade workers want the rules changed.
The current system feeds the perception that sex workers are “a substandard type of victim,” said Maxine Doogan, who described herself as a working prostitute and an organizer for the Erotic Service Providers Union in San Francisco. “It institutionalizes sexual assaults against our class of worker.”
Changing the rule has the support of district attorneys in Alameda, Santa Clara and Sutter counties, along with the victim-witness program director for Santa Barbara County’s district attorney’s office. They say sex workers often are coerced into their trade and so should not be denied benefits if they are harmed.
The conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation says its goal is to “assure that crime does not pay,” but in this case agrees with changing the rules.
“Prostitution is a crime, but it’s a minor one,” said Kent Scheidegger, the foundation’s legal director. “If someone’s been a victim of a major crime like rape or battery, it shouldn’t disqualify them from restitution.”
Also, there was no opposition in writing or at public hearings on the proposed rule change from more than 20 law enforcement officials, mental health providers, victims and advocates who commented, Myers said.
The board will meet Thursday morning to consider the request. Board members could do away with the rule or make changes. It currently applies to any activity related to prostitution, including pimping or soliciting.
California created the nation’s first victim compensation program in 1965, and formal rules barring payments to those involved in criminal activity have been in place since 1999. Such rules also bar reimbursement for those injured as a result of their involvement with illegal drugs, gang activities or consensual fights.
The program gets its money from fines and restitution paid by criminals, along with federal matching funds. It reimburses victims of violent crimes for expenses including medical care, counseling, lost income and increasing home security.
“Whether someone is engaged in prostitution shouldn’t have anything to do with whether they’ve been beaten or raped,” said Kimberly Horiuchi, an ACLU attorney. “Anytime we walk down the road that ‘the victim deserved it,’ it sends the wrong message.”
Though victims can be reimbursed for up to $62,000 in expenses, the average compensation is just under $2,000. Last year the board denied 28 claims because the victims were deemed to have been involved in prostitution-related activities.
This year the board amended its regulations to comply with a new state law that allows reimbursement for human trafficking victims regardless of their activities.
“Whether there was prostitution or not, if they were deemed to be involved in trafficking then they can qualify for our program,” Myers said.
Doogan said it is common for sex workers to face threats or assaults from pimps or customers. Yet, they are often reluctant to report crimes because they themselves are involved in an illegal activity.
“I have been in a lot of situations where I needed to call for help and police protection,” said Doogan. Yet, “I have to think about risking my economic circumstances in order to report crimes when I’ve been a victim. Those are really tough calls that people who are in the sex industry have to weigh every day.”
None of the three board members would comment in advance of Thursday’s meeting. They are Marybel Batjer, secretary of the California Government Operations Agency and the board’s chairwoman; state Controller John Chiang; and San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos.