Month: March 2015

Where the Winds of Change Do Not Sweep

When I was in grade school, my teacher sat myself and two boys down to let us know that we had the worst handwriting in the class. She turned to the boys and said something along the lines of, “But that’s okay. You’ll be doctors or professors someday.”

She turned to me and handed me a penmanship book.

This is the story I tell my students when they comment on my ugly handwriting. I explain that part of me developed my current scrawl out of spite, and that I continue to feed off of this nugget of resentment–each  and every slash is a small defiance against the misogyny in which I was raised.

My students are shocked by that story. They consider me to be old, but they still cannot believe that this ever happened to a woman who isn’t, like, ancient.

It’s one of the tamest stories I have. And I would not in any way be surprised to discover that such things were still being said to young girls in schools everywhere. It would especially not surprise me to discover that such things were still being said to young girls in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma is not a progressive place. In case you thought otherwise, please turn your attention to the recent OU Frat video. Or to the state’s consistent ranking as one of the worst states in which to be a woman. Or to pretty much anything that spews from the ignorance hole of Senator Jim Inhoff.

It was surprising, therefore, to discover that prostitution and solicitation are both misdemeanors and are treated equally under Oklahoma law. Pandering (pimping) is the felony.

In many places, for many years, solicitation has been treated as a lesser crime than prostitution. There are several movements currently seeking to end this, including End Demand, which focuses on how this discrepancy in the law has fueled human trafficking.

So it was weird to see that in Oklahoma, at least on the surface, johns and prostitutes are considered equally culpable.

But of course, there is the law, and then there are the people who enforce and interpret the law. You know, like the Ferguson PD or Antonin Scalia. Judges and police and lawyers are often placed under public microscopes. Most people at least know that they exist as part of the justice system, if for no other reason than it might actually be impossible to live in America and not see an episode of Law & Order. It would be like having never seen a McDonalds logo. Or the sky.

But until I read “We Extend Our Condolences” by Brian Ted Jones, published in This Land Press, I had no idea that another piece of the judicial system even existed. This piece is called the Crime Victims Compensation Board (CVCB). For those of you as privileged as myself (thanks again, white skin!), I’ll give a brief overview.

As you might have guessed by the name, CVCBs were established so that crime victims and the families of crime victims are not left in debt due to things like funeral costs, court costs, etc…California created the first program in 1965, and nine states were operating such programs by 1972. Oklahoma, ever on the cutting-edge, established its board in 1982.

It seems like a pretty good thing, all-in-all. The family of a murder victim, for example, shouldn’t go bankrupt from their deceased loved one’s medical bills.

But there are some restrictions on who can receive compensation. I’ve included the full list for Oklahoma in a note below, but it’s typical law stuff: jurisdiction, timeliness, cooperation. The last one, though, is troubling–

  • Compensation that could be awarded to a claimant shall be reduced or denied, depending on the degree of responsibility for the injury or death that is attributable to the victim.

Some people, this says, are responsible for their own pain, even their own deaths, and we are not paying these people.

Okay, as chilling as that thought might be, I guess I can imagine a scenario in which this seems to make sense. Imagine, if you will, a duel between Vince Gill and Garth Brooks.

vince gillgarth brooks

 

(because this is Oklahoma and because the thought of this cracks me up for some reason)

If Vince Gill challenged Garth Brooks to a duel, then spent time in the hospital after being shot in this duel, it would seem strange to then compensate Vince Gill for the hospital costs he incurred.

To my knowledge, however, this is not the sort of case the CVCB tends to handle.

“We Extend Our Condolences” focuses on the murder of Tiras Johnson, and explains that Tiras Johnson’s mother was denied compensation from the CVCB because of Tiras’s alleged gang activity. The letter his mother received, as Jones represents it, states:

—–On January 17, 2014, Netarsha Johnson, Tiras’s mother, received a letter from the board, explaining that “[a]n award of compensation cannot be made if the victim’s actions contributed to the criminal incident. The incident appears to be gang related and the victim exercised poor judgment by choosing to be a gang member.”—–

“We Extend Our Condolences” focuses on the process by which Tiras was tied to gang activity, then discusses how “gang activity” is often used to deny people of color their compensation in Oklahoma. Read the article. It’s intriguing in the best ways.

And since Jones does an excellent job of focusing on the race problem the CVCB has, I’m going to focus on something revealed in just in a few lines of the article:

—–The family of a male victim received a 50-percent reduction because of his “involvement with a known prostitute,” while a female victim’s eligibility was denied outright on the ground of “prostitution.”—–

I’m drawn back to those two lines. If you know me at all, or have read nearly any post on this blog, you can guess as to why these two lines caught me.

I checked with Jones to make certain that the woman and man mentioned above were victims of homicide. They were. This means that the CVCB denied compensation because they believe the john was partially responsible for his own death, and the prostitute was fully responsible for her own death. Why? Well, because he was a john and she was a prostitute.

The police did not say that these victims were responsible for their own deaths. The DA did not say that these victims were responsible for their own deaths. The court did not say that these victims were responsible for their own deaths. The police and the DA and the court investigated, arrested, and convicted people of their murders. Until the CVCB became part of the process, these two people were victims of homicide.

But the CVCB? The CVCB decided that they were not victims, they were accomplices.

This decision does not seem to align with the Oklahoma laws governing prostitution and solicitation. Prostitution and solicitation are both misdemeanor offenses, remember. And Oklahoma law treats these offenses equally, yet somehow the prostitute was 100% to blame for her own murder, while the john was only 50% to blame. Maybe there were other factors that went into these decisions, but these were the ones cited.

And should there have been other factors? Shouldn’t the same laws apply to the CVCB that apply elsewhere in the justice system?

The justice system is a troubled place. It most often rains its trouble on the vulnerable. Read the DOJ’s Ferguson report. Or talk to any public defender.

Every now and then it gets things right. Once, for instance, it investigated and arrested and prosecuted a person who murdered a prostitute. The police did not shove this case into a drawer because the victim was a prostitute. The attorney did not charge this person with a lesser crime because the victim was a prostitute. The court did not fail to convict because the victim was a prostitute.

But then, somehow, after all that went right, there was yet another piece of the system that said a woman was responsible for her own murder because she was a prostitute. This piece said to a murdered woman’s family that she was an accomplice in her own death.

I would ask how this is possible, but this is a question I don’t remember asking. Growing-up in a place like Oklahoma means that racism and misogyny, along with the abuse of power and the miscarriage of justice that can arise from these forces, have never seemed like tales from days of yore.

I envy the question, “How is this possible?”

 

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NOTE 1:

There is an appeal process for those denied compensation from the CVCB. However, the first step of this process sends the appellant directly back to the exact same CVCB that denied the claim. Then, if it is denied yet again, the appellant can resort to the court system. I could find nothing on the Oklahoma DA’s website that laid-out exactly how the process would work at this point, probably because this part of the process doesn’t work. What are the odds that the family of a victim denied compensation can afford this kind of drawn-out battle? A battle that is obviously meant to discourage appeals at all, or why would the first step be back to, rather than away from, the very people who first denied the claim?

NOTE 2:

Full list of conditions that must be met in order to receive compensation from the CVCB of Oklahoma:

  • The crime must have occurred in Oklahoma.
  • The crime must have been reported to law enforcement within 72 hours of the incident. The Board or administrator may find good cause for failure to report within this period. Exceptions are always made for child victims.
  • The claim for compensation must be filed within one (1) year of the crime-related injury of the victim.  The one (1) year deadline may be waived and extended to two (2) years for good cause, and may be extended beyond two (2) years only in child sexual assault cases.  In no event can other claims be extended beyond two (2) years.
  • The claimant is required to fully cooperate with the police, prosecution and other law enforcement entities during the investigation and prosecution of the offender.
  • Compensation shall not be awarded to a claimant if it would benefit the offender or an accomplice, and the claimant must not have been the offender or accomplice.
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