‘Are the current avenues for Victims of Crime in Victoria to access compensation effective? If so, how? If not, what are the alternative avenues for victims to seek compensation? Also address the impact of crimes on individuals and society and whether or not our sentences are effectively addressing the crimes.
In the calendar year 2011/2012, Victoria Police recorded almost 400,000 criminal offences committed – ranging from assault to drug trafficking. This number of offences was almost unprecedented – rising by 8.2% from the previous year. However, while the focus is often kept squarely on the offenders – the perpetrators of these crimes – the impact these offences have on the victims of crime can be significant. Whilst often the biggest help for victims of crime is to be given time to recover, crime compensation can go a long way in accelerating their recovery. Primarily, this compensation is provided by the Victorian Parliament. The main aim of crime compensation is to redress some of the pain, suffering and financial burden inflicted directly by a criminal act. In its current state, the avenues crime compensation operate quite effectively, whilst alternative avenues bolster its effectiveness further. Crime compensation can be incredibly important for those who have been unfortunate enough to be in the crosshairs of crime.
Victims of crime face a number of issues in the aftermath of a crime. Whether physical or mental trauma or damage associated with the crime has occurred, it could be irreparable or extremely costly. If the death of a family member is involved, for instance, another family member may be expected to pay for funeral costs – which can often add up to tens of thousands of dollars. While necessary, these costs can accumulate and further impact the victims of crime, by placing an additional financial burden on them. Another major issue faced by victims of crime on the road to recovery is the loss of income. Physical or mental injury can put an individual out of work for months, or even permanently. This can further exacerbate financial problems created as a result of the crime. These issues faced by victims can drastically slow or halt recovery, inhibiting them from continuing with their normal activities.
Compensation for victims of crime is provided by government funding. This compensation operates in a number of different ways: it may, for example, include expenses relating to the effect of the crime including reimbursement of lost income, medical expenses and counselling expenses. These forms of compensation aim to provide the victim with a timely recovery from their ordeal. These make up part of the primary avenue of seeking compensation for crimes – by submitting an application to VOCAT. This can be done at no cost to the victim – the Victorian Government is responsible for providing any legal and mental health professionals that may be required. To further simplify this process, Victims of Crime Compensation & Counselling Services (VOCCS) is able to assist by providing suggestions as to the steps that should be taken by the victim to seek compensation and counselling. There are, however, guidelines that applicants must meet before compensation can be sought. Eligibility is based on whether the applicant has been the primary, secondary or ‘related’ (someone who was close with the primary victim) victim of a violent crime (such as assault, a sexual offence or the death of an individual), whether the crime was reported to the police in a reasonable timeframe and whether it has occurred in the last two years. Given that the situation meets all these guidelines, compensation of up to $100,000 can be sought (depending on the nature of the crime and the monetary cost of the victim’s recovery).
While the standard method of obtaining crime compensation operates quite effectively and encompasses the majority of situations, there exist alternative avenues which may sometimes be more suitable. One of these alternative avenues is that victims of crime may be able to access compensation through the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic.). Under Sections 85A-85M of this act, the victim of a crime is provided with the option of seeking compensation directly from the offender, up to 12 months after they have been found guilty. This means that any compensation is paid by the offender themselves, rather than the state, and is therefore not restricted by the same monetary limits as crime compensation. Another alternative avenue for victims to seek compensation is through common law – if the victim is not satisfied with the result of a VOCAT application, they may appeal the dispute to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). A final decision may then be made here about the eligibility of the applicant for crime compensation. This process is can be facilitated by the Department of Police Prosecution, solicitors and VCAT itself. Finally, there are also forms of non-monetary compensation which aim to help the victim recover as quickly as possible – such compensation could include a gym membership, physical rehabilitation or bolstering home security. All these alternative avenues for crime compensation aim to achieve a similar outcome to applying to VOCAT – to facilitate victims of crime to recover as quickly as possible with minimal pain, suffering and financial burden.
The need for crime compensation also highlights the impact that crimes have on victims, their families and society in general. Despite the much-vaunted fights against crime by governments around Australia, and the world, it still exists in unfortunately high amounts. The Victorian crime rate in 2012 was approximately 7000 offences/100,000 population. Violent crime can often have dramatic effects to victims. While there is almost always a mental impact, often there can be more. In 2002, a 16-year old Angela ‘Anj’ Barker was viciously bashed by her older boyfriend in a park over a petty argument. She was left in a park to bleed out, before being flown – hours later – from country Victoria to an intensive care unit in Melbourne. Miraculously, Anj painstakingly survived her ordeal, spending eight weeks in hospital, five months in rehab and 2 years in a nursing home – all at the age of 17=18. While she has kept her spirits up and is now a spokesperson for the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria (DVRCV), the physical trauma inflicted by the violent crime will stay with her forever. Her speech was damaged almost irreparably, her limbs palsied and she is restricted to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She was, through no fault of her own, left physically disabled. Her attacker was sentenced to a minimum jail time of 7 ½ years, being released in 2009. While this may seem disturbingly short, the outcome was partially dictated by his own plead of guilt. Anj, however, will have to put on a brave face for the rest of her life and wonder ‘what if?’ As Anj herself puts it, “he didn’t receive a life sentence – I did’.
While the impact violent crimes have on the victims and their loved ones is immense, their impact on society is also significant, and has increased dramatically since the ascension of social media. Through media such as Twitter and Facebook, news is able to spread very quickly – allowing individuals to form opinions, express emotions and stay informed. A recent example of social media attention could be seen focused on the case of the rape and murder of journalist Jill Meagher in September 2012. This case created a veritable social media ‘tidal wave’ – people grieving and expressing their disgust at such a heinous crime, as well as their shock at how familiar the location of the crime was to them. On this occasion, the use of social media had an arguably positive effect on the investigation of this crime, greatly increasing awareness (a Facebook page called ‘Help us find Jill Meagher’ generated 100,000 ‘likes’ within 5 days) and prompting many individuals around Victoria to try and aid the police in any way they could; Crime Stoppers and Victoria Police were inundated with calls from the general public, offering assistance. The impact on society was primarily focused on a lowered sense of security on the streets of Melbourne and hit closer to home than many previous crimes – certainly one of the more impactful in recent memory. On the other side of the grief and disbelief brought on by this case sat Adrian Ernest Bayley – Ms. Meagher’s assailant. Earlier in 2013, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and 15 years for rape – 35 years without parole. An ABC interview with Ms. Meagher’s husband, Tom Meagher, however, revealed that he believed that the sentence imposed was “a disgrace” and that “(Adrian Bayley) had been let off too many times by our justice system”.
A similar case that experienced a huge public backlash was ‘Thomas Towle’ case. Mr. Towle killed 6 teenagers with his out-of-control car and fled the scene. When eventually caught, he was sentenced to 7 years minimum imprisonment – a sentence the public deemed too lenient for the manslaughter of 6 teenagers. However, while there is often dispute at the lengths of sentences imposed on offenders, often serving ‘hard time’ is not enough to deter repeat offenders – recidivism is still prevalent in Victoria and Australia. 60% of all prisoners in prisons today have been imprisoned previously for a different offence. This figure is similarly high in other English-speaking countries; USA (67.5%) and UK (62%) – this is contradictory to the main aim of imprisonment – “to deter future offences and to rehabilitate offenders”. This begs the question – are prisons a waste of time and resources? Should we be rehabilitating, or punishing? Australia’s current system of sentencing to address crime could be considered inadequate. There are two extreme sides of this debate which should be considered – one side says that prison sentences are sometimes too severe and should be more heavily subsidised with rehabilitation and psychological support for the prisoners (with the aim to allow them to integrate effectively back into society on release), while the other side considers prisons too lenient for some crimes and more of a burden on the nation’s economy – supporting capital punishment as an option for the worst criminals (a debate sparked again by the ruling made in the Jill Meagher case). I believe that our sentences are not necessarily effectively addressing the crimes because they take away the freedom of criminals without attempting to provide them with support and education. Without these, our recidivism rate will continue to stay at high levels. 68% of reoffending prisoners in Australia cite lack of employment options as their reason for reoffending. Providing prisoners with useful skills and pathways into the workforce would contribute a long way towards reducing offences and therefore crime.
In conclusion, the provision of crime compensation goes a long way towards providing victims of crime a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. While sentencing in Australia is not necessarily as effective as it could be, the victims of violent crimes deserve as much public attention as the offenders. Crime compensation allows victims to seek treatment, rest up and recover from their ordeal without having to deal with the daunting financial burden attached. In doing so, it helps to reduce the impact that violent crimes have on the victim, their friends and their families. Crime compensation also remains accessible to a wide range of people in the majority of situations; with avenues ranging from applying for compensation from VOCAT or seeking compensation from the offender directly. Victims of crime are also provided with services which facilitate the process of obtaining compensation, such as the Victims of Crime Counselling and Compensation Services (VOCCCS), who can make it accessible to even more people. All this helps to reduce the impact of the plethora of issues faced by victims of crime and assist them in a meaningful way for a quick recovery – returning them to employment, friends and family; sooner, rather than later.