THE District of Columbia is on the verge of joining almost a dozen states that have developed programs to compensate crime victims for their injuries. The city council has received a bill to establish such a program and plans hearings within a few weeks. When we read the brief notices in the newspapers about a citizen injured by a gunman or stabbed by a mugger, we rarely learn the full impact of that crime on the victim and the victim's family: wages lost, costly bills not covered by insurance for medical care, permanent disability - all in addition to the psychic and physical pain that accompanied the incident.
It has taken a long time to to get public authorities to think seriously about helping the victims of crime. Even in those 11 states where compensation programs exist, there is apparently insufficient public awareness of the problem - and of the existence of a remedy. The overwhelming majority of crime victims in the states with programs were unaware that such assistance was available, according to a recent survey reported by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Some states now require that the police officers responding to a crime come to the scene armed with literature and forms for applying for victim assistance. As with any other welfare program, crime compensation programs work only as well as they are administered. A citizen compensation board - which is what appears to be in store for the District - is far preferable to the system in Massachusetts, where the validation of claims and the size of damages is determined by the courts.
Since the victims of violent crime tend to be poor, compensation programs can make a big difference after a family catastrophe. But they are not a total answer to the problems of crime victims. For example, victims who complain to the police often go through an ordeal of two, three and four court appearances, each of which may result in a day's pay lost for the victim. Often such marginal workers as waitreses, housekeepers, busboys and messengers find that if they take the time necessary to appear in court against an assailant, their jobs may vanish. When the city council begins its hearings on the compensation matter, they ought to consider what might be done to protect these crime victims from losing their jobs for doing their civic duty in criminal cases.