Thursday, March 17, 2011

Real Justice for Murder Victims

The remarkable Judy Kerr courageously speaks out against the death penalty as a family member of a murder victim.  Her eloquent and deeply personal voice brings a critical perspective to the debate over capital punishment.  She is a spokesperson and victim liaison for California Crime Victims for Alternative to the Death Penalty, which is a coalition of families, friends, and loved ones of murder victims who oppose the death penalty.  Below is Judy's recent op-ed, first published in the Press-Enterprise.

End Death Penalty; Don't Cut Victims' Fund

By Judy Kerr, March 15, 2011.

Recently, The Press-Enterprise reported that California's victims' fund, the nation's first government fund to ease the financial burden carried by crime victims, is set to go broke by next year ("State board OKs victims-aid cuts," Feb. 18). The announcement came just two months after the fund celebrated its 45th anniversary.

At that time, the California Victims Compensation Program was lauded for dispensing $2 billion to cover crime-related costs for victims since 1965. Typical expenses covered include counseling, relocation, living expenses, medical help, income loss, and job training. 

Following the announcement, a state panel approved more than $18 million in cuts through June 2012 in order to prevent insolvency. The approved cuts include lower caps on reimbursement for medical and mental health care and funeral expenses.

As a murder victim family member who has experienced firsthand the many shortcomings and inadequacies of already underfunded state-victim services, it outrages me to imagine the repercussions of the newly approved cuts.

After my brother Robert James Kerr was murdered in July 2003, I encountered many obstacles while navigating the bureaucracy of victim services. While trying to access much-needed grief counseling for me and my then 8-year-old daughter, I was given a brochure and told to call and "open a case."

Assistance Denied
When I did, I was told that only first-degree relatives qualified for services. My family and I found counseling on our own and then tried to submit our bills for compensation. After several appeals, our request was denied because we had not accessed our personal coverage, which, in my case, had a four-month waiting period for grief counseling.

My struggles are not uncommon. I have come across many family members of murder victims who have had trouble with accessing victims' services -- like the parents who, following their daughter's murder, were forced to end grief counseling before they were ready because funding for their sessions ran out. 

Unfortunately, last week's cuts were not out of the ordinary. During financial shortfalls, the victims fund is one of the first places the government looks to for extra cash. In 2008, lawmakers took $80 million from it to help balance the state budget.

My family was in crisis when Bob was murdered, but we made difficult choices and did our best to protect each other. Today, our state is in financial crisis and lawmakers must make difficult choices. Before releasing his recent budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown warned that deep cuts would be made and he promised that everything would be on the table. As expected, the victims fund took a hit. Yet, somehow, one particular money pit managed to remain untouched, as it does year after year: California's death penalty. 

Each year, the death penalty costs California taxpayers $126 million more than it would cost if we replaced the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. On top of that, taxpayers will spend $400 million if construction of a colossal new death row housing facility moves forward. All together, we will waste $1 billion over the next five years on the death penalty.

Supporters of the death penalty argue that it is worth the cost because it provides justice for victims even though many murder victim family members disagree. Yes, there are victims who advocate for the death penalty, but there are also many victims, like me, who believe that the death penalty does nothing to serve victims' real needs and actually prolongs their pain and suffering.

Help Rebuild Lives
There must be room for justice for victims in our budget. The death penalty is not where we will find it. Real justice comes from protecting each other and helping victims rebuild their lives after the devastating loss of a loved one.  Instead of cutting funding for victims' services, cut this: the death penalty.


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