While attending the American Sociology Association’s annual conference in San Francisco in 2014, Jeremy Levine planned to get brunch with his wife. It was a warm August morning, so the two walked from the downtown hotel where they were staying to a restaurant that had been recommended. The wait time was too long, so they left, hoping to find somewhere less crowded. But after crossing the street, Levine was startled by the sound of people yelling and then two unmistakable gunshots.
Levine doesn’t remember what happened in the seconds that followed but was told later that he pushed his wife to safety and they ran for cover around the corner. “It was at that point that I looked down at my thigh, and there was a hole in my pants and blood slowly growing,” says Levine (B.A. ’08), an associate professor of organizational studies and sociology (by courtesy). “I knew I was in trouble.”
Levine had been hit by a stray bullet. The bullet didn’t hit bone or the femoral artery, and Levine went on to recover fully. Still, his life has changed since the shooting. While talking to police afterward, he was made aware of victim compensation available through the state, something he had never heard of.
“One thing that the police noted, before I left the hospital, was that all my medical bills would be paid for because of taxes,” says Levine. That seemed simple enough. The reality, however, turned out to be much more complicated.
As Levine would soon learn, victim compensation law and policy refers to public programs that began in California in the 1960s, but soon expanded to the rest of the country. The laws compensate innocent victims of crime for medical bills and other costs incurred if they meet specific criteria. Levine thought that the state-specific programs sounded like a fairly straightforward policy. But after he applied as an out-of-state graduate student, he faced months of red tape. Though Levine had been told that the process would be simple, his medical bills were sent to collections and he struggled to obtain coverage. He eventually received compensation, but through his research during the process, Levine learned that people who are not white males like him often don’t receive the benefit.
“Being a student of inequality, I wanted to learn anything and everything,” says Levine. His academic path and research had been focused on poverty in Boston, but the shooting led to a new direction, and he was driven to find answers. He now studies where victim compensation laws come from, who pays for and receive compensation, and, most importantly for Levine, who doesn’t have access.
The policies are funded in part by federal subsidies but largely paid for by fees and fines levied against people convicted of various crimes, from minor traffic offenses to felonies—leading to policies that are fraught with disparity.
An unintended outcome of the laws is that victim compensation has created two classes of people: those who commit crimes, and those who are innocent victims. People who are convicted of a crime pay for the program but disproportionately become ineligible for it themselves. In several states, if they are a victim of a later crime, they can’t benefit. Levine believes that this stratified system is immoral and unfair.
Levine points to the fact that he wasn’t mistreated by the police, was automatically believed, and was immediately lumped into the“innocent” category. His findings show that this may not be the case if he were from a marginalized community.
“I’m constantly driven by reading experiences and comparing them to my own,” Levine says. His research shows the policy treats white males better than others, particularly Black males. “For example, I have more than a dozen states that have given me compensation data, and I have put them into a statistical model to see who is most likely to be denied, and it is Black men, Indigenous men and women, and those who list their race as ‘other.’ As for who is most likely to be denied for being perceived as uncooperative by police, it’s Black men by a mile.”
Levine’s research also shows that women who are survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault are disproportionately denied compensation. He says this can happen for a variety of reasons: survivors might depend on their partner, kids could be in the picture, or mistrust dissuades victims from reporting such instances to authorities, particularly if they are women of color.
Levine’s experiences have given him the ability to speak on issues from a perspective of unique expertise. In his research and advocacy, Levine doesn’t focus on himself—the shooting in San Francisco, the long process and hurdles he had to jump through to receive payment for medical bills, his recovery, the PTSD. He chooses instead to focus on the fact that he was compensated, and as drawn out as his own experience was, that compensation is not available to many victims who don’t look like him or come from the same positionality.
Levine has advice for policy makers and others who can make a difference: “Looking at systemic racial and gender inequality, and who is being denied, thinking hard about the intent of the denial, and then thinking about helping to get hard data on the inequalities is important.” About eligibility requirements, Levine says, “I think many are illogical on their face, but the fact that they are so racially biased adds an urgency to get rid of them. Or at least rethink them.
”In the classroom, Levine teaches students to look closely at how public programs affect various communities differently, sharing his own story as an example. He continues to research and publish, hopeful to inspire others to examine victim compensation with an honest and critical eye. And at home, he has two young kids now, people he hopes will grow up and live in a world with more equity afforded to all. Although the shooting was traumatic, Levine has turned the incident into a driving force to do his part in helping bring about that social change.
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