States tax criminals to help provide aid for crime victims

There is a new ''tax'' spreading across the United States. But it's one that few citizens will ever have to pay. The new ''levy,'' aimed at funding various programs to aid crime victims, is, in effect, a special add-on fine paid by convicted lawbreakers.

While it is uncertain to what extent the ''crime tax,'' as it is sometimes called, might prevent wrongdoing, its proponents view it as an important step toward providing the protection and special support required for victims of crime.

At least 23 states, the latest being Massachusetts, have turned during the past four years to this revenue source for assisting crime victims, their families, and witnesses.

The new Bay State crime tax, signed into law Dec. 19 by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, involves a $25 surcharge for those convicted of a felony and $15 levy for those found guilty of a misdemeanor.

How the funds are allocated is left substantially to a five-member board. That special panel, comprising the state attorney general, two district attorneys, and two private citizens appointed by the governor, also is responsible for overseeing a broad range of programs provided by the new legislation.

Although slightly different in scope, the new Massachusetts statute is patterned substantially after California law. A 1980 voter initiative in that state produced the nation's first crime tax, which was followed last year by a full-scale set of state victims' rights laws.

Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin have enacted similar measures in recent years, most of them within the past 12 months, according to Adele Terrell, of the Washington D.C.-based National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA).

Victims' rights legislation is expected to be considered at 1984 lawmaking sessions in more than a dozen states. Meanwhile, in Oregon, backers of a proposed state constitutional amendment to provide such guarantees are circulating petitions to place the matter before voters on next November's election ballot.

Few if any of the present or proposed victims's rights measures are identical , Ms. Terrell observes, noting that several do not require criminals to directly compensate their victims.

The Massachusetts statute, considered by some experts to be among the broadest, guarantees that the crime victim and his or her family will be kept abreast of the progress of the case, including arrests and dates and places of any trial that might follow.

Under the new legislation, victims are also permitted to testify in connection with the sentencing of their assailants. In the past the prosecution was under no obligation to keep victims informed, and victims were rarely permitted to make sentencing recommendations to the judge.

Backers of such legislation, like Essex County District Attorney Kevin M. Burke, contend that for too long, emphasis in the criminal justice system has been skewed toward protecting the rights of the criminal, while the victims of their crimes are all but forgotten.

The thrust of the new law here, as in other states, is to see that those affected by crime receive counseling and whatever other help is required to help them and their families.

Several district attorneys around the commonwealth have instituted some types of victim-support programs in recent years, but they have generally been inadequate, mainly because of necessary funding, explains Lt. Gov. John F. Kerry. Several years ago, as first deputy-assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, Mr. Kerry was instrumental in getting the first such program underway in the Bay State.

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