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Question of Aid : Does a Man Who Was Paralyzed During L.A. Riots Deserve Crime Victim Funds if He Was on Parole at the Time?

November 20, 1994|JOHN HURST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Tony Rigor was shot in the back two years ago, the bullet not only left him a quadriplegic but touched off a controversy over whether a felon can receive victim compensation funds from the state.

Forced to use a wheelchair, Rigor, 28, applied for assistance from California's Victims of Crime Program. The agency pays out tens of millions of dollars to victims annually--$86 million to 100,000 people last year. But Rigor's application was rejected by the State Board of Control, the little-known administrator of the victims aid program. The reason: At the time he was shot in Los Angeles during the riots, Rigor was on parole for selling marijuana.

Rigor appealed to Superior Court and won benefits earlier this year. In a stinging opinion, Judge Diane Wayne found that the Board of Control had denied benefits to Rigor using an "underground" regulation that had not been properly enacted. She added that the board's interpretation of relevant California law was "nonsensical."

In response, the board enacted a formal emergency regulation declaring that felons who are victimized by crime while in prison, on parole or on probation are prohibited from receiving aid from the victims program. The board is to seek public comment on the regulation at a hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday, a required step before making the rule permanent.

Although Board of Control staff members say the new regulation follows state law, one board member said the rule may be inequitable, but is needed because money is scarce.

"I can't say that it is fair," said Ruth Lockhart, who was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1992 to represent the public on the three-member board. "It's never fair when a person is a victim under any circumstances.

"What happens," said Lockhart, who is a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate Services in Oakland, "is you have a limited amount of resources and it seems like an unlimited amount of people calling on it. The good thing would be to provide those services for everyone, but it's not an unlimited pool. You just have to say who is the most deserving victim."

The other two members of the board--Controller Gray Davis and John Lockwood, director of the state Department of General Services--could not be reached for comment.

Besides administering the crime victims program, duties of the Board of Control include consideration of claims for damages against the state, formulation of travel allowance rules for state employees, and consideration of state purchase protests.

Funds for the victims program come from fines and penalties levied by state and federal authorities. Last year only 15 felons applied for aid. They were all refused assistance.

Legal Aid Foundation attorney Ronald Kaye, who won the appeal for Rigor, maintains that felons are a politically safe target for cost-cutting.

"The current political climate dictates prejudice against felons," he said, "because they're not going to receive the kind of public support that other groups in society would receive."

In a letter to the Board of Control, Kaye said parolees and probationers are frequently poor, live in high-crime neighborhoods and are especially vulnerable to crime.

If such people were eligible for treatment and rehabilitation under the victims aid program, he argued, they would be more likely to lead productive lives.

The controversy has its roots in a public furor that erupted in 1987 when convicted child molester Alex Cabarga, serving a 208-year prison sentence, was declared eligible by the Board of Control to receive up to $10,000 in crime victims aid to pay for psychotherapy.

In the bizarre case, Cabarga and Luis (Treefrog) Johnson were convicted of kidnaping two children and sexually abusing them over a period of 10 months. Johnson was sentenced to 527 years.

Cabarga's eligibility for victim benefits was based on findings that when Cabarga was 9 years old his parents "gave" him to Johnson, who beat him and sexually molested him over the next decade.

In response to the outcry over Cabarga's grant, the Legislature passed a law aimed at preventing such awards, but it was not a model of clarity.

"The statute is a bit murky," said Francis Coats, staff attorney for the Board of Control. "People don't agree on what the statute said."

There is general agreement that the Legislature meant to bar benefits to felons while they are in prison, on parole or on probation.

But what about after the sentence is completed?

May a prisoner, probationer or parolee who is criminally assaulted be granted victims benefits after the sentence is served?

No, says the Board of Control.

Enter Tony Sy Rigor, who in the spring of 1992 was a robust 25-year-old on parole from prison in Los Angeles after serving two years for selling marijuana.

Rigor's parole agent reported later that the man, who had been trying to learn building contracting, made an "excellent adjustment to the community."

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