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Louisiana State Capitol

Louisiana’s Crime Victims Reparations Board offers a financial lifeline to victims of violent crime. It cuts checks to help victims with medical bills, pays for counseling for those traumatized by assaults, covers moving expenses for those beaten at home by spouses and helps parents bury their slain children.

But crime victims with a criminal record have seen their applications for help turned down under a longstanding board rule blocking aid for anyone with a felony conviction of any kind in their recent past.

That’s set to change after the Louisiana Legislature unanimously passed legislation to end that rule and prohibiting the Crime Victims Reparations Board from considering a victim’s own criminal record when weighing an application for help.

Applicants for aid could still be turned down if they were involved in the crime or instigated the fight that left them hurt. But an unrelated felony conviction will no longer count against their bid for help under House Bill 85 by state Rep. Robert Billiot, a Westwego Democrat, and Rep. Joseph Marino, No Party-Gretna.

The bill sailed through both the House and Senate without a single vote in opposition on Tuesday. Gov. John Bel Edwards is inclined to sign it, a spokeswoman told The Advocate.

The state’s district attorneys pressed for the change, frustrated that grieving families of those killed in violent homicides were being turned down for state aid with funeral expenses because their slain relative had been convicted of a crime in the years before their death.

“They can be an innocent victim and their criminal history is held against them,” Nancy Michel, who runs the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office’s victims assistance division, told lawmakers earlier this year.

But Crime Victims Reparations Board, which sets eligibility rules, opposed the change by pointing to already scant resources to pay claims. In recent years, the board’s strained finances have forced crime victims to wait months — or even years — for checks.

The compensation fund for crime victims doesn’t receive state tax money. Instead, it draws primarily on a portion of court fines levied on criminal defendants and annual federal matching grants.

Cash-strapped state fund to aid crime victims can’t keep pace with requests

Denying compensation claims to from anyone with a felony conviction in the last three years allows the Crime Victims Reparations Board to reserve its limited money for crime victims without a criminal record, a group one board member referred to as “known innocent victims.”

"You can see how truly innocent victims of crimes are going to suffer even more and the delays are going to be even longer,” Carolyn Stapleton, a current board member and a retired victims services director for the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, told state senators in May. “If we add that into it, how much further behind are we going to get for the very people that we’re trying to assist right now?”

A prior criminal record is by far the leading reason the Crime Victims Reparations Board rejects applications, according to a review of the minutes from board meetings and annual reports.

More than half of all the rejected requests for assistance between 2013 and 2015 — the most recent years for which the board’s annual reports are available online — were turned down by the board because the crime victim had a felony conviction sometime in the past five years.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.