How We Reported on Illinois’s Victim Compensation Program

Is this program helping most of the people who need it? That’s the question we started with when looking into Illinois’s Crime Victim Compensation Program. It’s existed for almost half a century with the sole purpose of reimbursing victims of violent crime and their families for expenses related to their injuries and losses. This includes funeral and burial costs, medical debt, loss of income, moving expenses, and mental health counseling. The state’s Court of Claims and the Attorney General’s Office run the program together.

To report this story, we requested five years of program data from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, from 2015-2020. We requested data that included the date each claim was entered into the agencies’ case management systems; when an award recommendation was made; the type of recommendation; the type of crime the claim was for; the type of reimbursements people were seeking, as well as geographic data for the applicant and victim of the crime. 

We received this information, as well as the staff roster, through the Freedom of Information Act. We also interviewed dozens of survivors, loved ones, advocates, officials, and lawmakers to understand the strengths and challenges people had with the program. 

Each state has a program like this, although they each operate differently. To understand how Illinois stacked up against the rest of the Midwest, The Trace also spoke with program coordinators in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Kentucky. Overall we found that several other states had a more streamlined process for their victim compensation programs, including online lookups so applicants could see where their application was in the process. 

Here’s how we reached these conclusions: 

Nearly 20,000 claims have been filed in the timeframe we reviewed. We looked only at the nearly 15,000 claims filed between 2015 and 2020 that the office marked as closed. 

We began our analysis by using R, a programming language, to look at the year each claim was entered into the Court of Claims records, when the vetting process begins. We were then able to follow the claim throughout the entire process, up until the Attorney General’s Office decides whether to award the reimbursement or not. This is how we calculated the delays the program is experiencing. There are many steps before and after these dates, and applicants can also request appeals. 

We also wanted to find out the type and prevalence of the many different award recommendations for claims. So we looked at the total amount of award recommendations made in each calendar year and then at the award recommendation by type of crime. We found that fewer than four in 10 claims were fully approved. Most cases were denied or marked as “award no pay,” meaning that while someone is technically eligible to receive funds, the money isn’t reimbursed to them directly. This can happen for many reasons, but was mostly because of additional paperwork that applicants still needed to file. 

One of the people we interviewed was Zay Manning, a 23-year-old shooting survivor in Chicago. He and his mother didn’t know that his application status was “award no pay,” and assumed it had been denied. We were able to confirm the actual recommendation by searching his claim number in the dataset. 

Additionally, we used Chicago Police Department data to compare levels of violent crime with victims compensation claims. While victims of a variety of crimes are eligible to apply for compensation, 88 percent of applications are for murder, assault and battery, and sexual offenses, so we restricted our analysis to those three types. Between 2015 and 2020, CPD recorded about 417,000 of these crimes, while 8,200 applications were filed for victims who lived in Chicago — approximately one claim for every 50 crime incidents. 

Although we wanted to look at the racial and gender breakdown of the applicant pool, the Attorney General’s Office did not provide us with this data in response to our original Freedom of Information Act. Then an April ransomware attack compromised the office’s network. We are still waiting to receive these records. We were able to get an initial understanding of the demographic breakdown through annual reports the Court of Claims submits to the federal Office of Victims of Crime. Without more detailed data, we are unable to analyze possible disparities regarding race or gender.

The data was analyzed by me and Daniel Nass, The Trace’s data editor.

What else did we use in our reporting? 

In addition to data reporting and interviews, we read historical reports and surveys about the program to gain a better understanding of its long-term shortcomings. This included a 1976 report in the Loyola University Law Journal, surveys published by the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority in 2002 and in 2016, and a review of the program and a report by advocacy and anti-violence groups, both published in 2019. We also read legislative transcripts from the Illinois State Library that included lawmakers discussing the victim compensation legislation that was pending in the ‘70s.

To better understand victim services on a national level, we reviewed several historical records. Among these are a 1982 Presidential Task Force report, and a report on victim services in the 21st century. We also read a historical overview of the Crime Victims’ Rights movement, which is available on the federal Office of Victims of Crime website

What did the Attorney General’s Office have to say about our findings?

We shared our findings with the Attorney General’s Office and the Court of Claims in late June. Before publishing our story, we had a final interview with the Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Division Chief Sharrise Kimbro said they could not comment on what happened in the years prior to Raoul’s taking office in 2019.

Although we looked at claims filed in a given year, the Attorney General’s Office focused on the years analysts made an award recommendation in. In 2019, they said they made a recommendation in 1,683 cases. Of this, they recommended an award in about a quarter of the claims. However, most were still given an “award no pay.” They said in 2020, they recommended an award in about half of the cases. The Attorney General’s Office pointed to these statistics as a sign that their Office’s work resulted in program improvements. “That is a direct result of operating (under) the attorney general’s vision on being more trauma-informed,” Kimbro said. 

We found similar trends to their 2019 analysis, but could not replicate their 2020 finding since our dataset is not as up-to-date. It’s important to note, though, that when we looked at cases from their approach, we still found low approval rates from 2015 to 2018, during the years prior the current attorney general’s administration, and 2019, the first year of Raoul’s term. 

Both the Attorney General’s Office and the Court of Claims said they are following the guidelines of the program outlined in the law. They are not intentionally failing to pay applicants, they said, and that they cannot process applications that have inadequate paperwork. Both agencies reiterated their commitment to serving victims.

Raoul says recent legislative changes may not be reflected in the data for some time, but he remains committed to improving the program. “I am pleased with what my staff has done, [and] the important changes to better serve victims in Illinois from the Crime Victim Compensation standpoint,” he said.

This piece was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 Data Fellowship.

[This article was originally published by The Trace.]

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