Spurred by emotional testimony from sex workers, California officials voted Thursday to change a 1990s-era anti-crime regulation and allow prostitutes to receive money from a victim compensation fund if they're raped or beaten.
Under the current system, those harmed in violent crimes can be paid for medical costs and related expenses, but prostitutes are excluded because their activities are illegal.
Marybel Batjer, chairwoman of the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, called the rule "repugnant," adding in a later interview that, "Rape is rape, period."
The three-member board voted unanimously to end California's status as the only state with such a prohibition, though it will take several months to formally repeal the regulation. The change does not affect the illegality of prostitution.
The board acted after hearing what Batjer and fellow board member Michael Ramos called passionate and compelling testimony from several sex workers who said they have been assaulted.
Carol Leigh, a representative of the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, said she was raped by two men who entered the massage parlor where she worked.
The men "took a knife to my throat and demanded sex and money," she told the board. "I realized that, as a sex worker, I was a sitting duck, that the system, basically, was set up so that I felt that I couldn't go to the police. ... The rapists know, and they see us as targets."
Ramos, the district attorney in San Bernardino County, said law enforcement generally has been trying to change perceptions and practices involving sexual assault victims, and in particular those victimized by human trafficking.
"I think we sent a big message today from this board for the state of California, that we are now going to mirror some of our other states that feel the same way. It's a national issue," Ramos said in an interview after the board's vote.
The program gets its money from fines and restitution paid by criminals, along with federal matching funds. It reimburses victims of violent crimes for expenses including medical care, counseling, lost income and increasing home security.
Though victims can be reimbursed for up to $62,000 in expenses, the average compensation is just under $2,000. Last year, the board denied 28 claims because the victims were deemed to have been involved in prostitution-related activities.
Jon Myers, the board's deputy executive officer, said the current rule was enacted in 1999 during an era when the state was generally getting tough on crime.
The American Civil Liberties Union and organizations representing sex trade workers asked for the regulation change.
Kristen DiAngelo, who identified herself as a sex worker, testified that she was raped, beaten, repeatedly choked, robbed and held captive overnight in downtown Sacramento in 1983.
"I was told that if I prosecuted this guy, by the police, that I would be the one going to go to jail," she said. "What happens when we have a regulation like this, it segregates us from the normal population. It makes us inhuman, non-helpable. You allow predators to hone their skills.
"These are hate crimes, and they need to be stopped," she added later.
Changing the rule had the support of district attorneys in Alameda, Santa Clara and Sutter counties, along with the victim-witness program director for Santa Barbara County's district attorney's office. They say sex workers often are coerced into their trade and so should not be denied benefits if they are harmed.
The conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation says its goal is to "assure that crime does not pay," but in this case agrees with changing the rules.
"Prostitution is a crime, but it's a minor one," said Kent Scheidegger, the foundation's legal director. "If someone's been a victim of a major crime like rape or battery, it shouldn't disqualify them from restitution."
There was no opposition at Thursday's hearing, or at previous public hearings on the proposed rule change, which applies to any activity related to prostitution, including pimping or soliciting.
California created the nation's first victim compensation program in 1965, and formal rules barring payments to those involved in criminal activity have been in place since 1999. Such rules also bar reimbursement for those injured as a result of their involvement with illegal drugs, gang activities or consensual fights.