SACRAMENTO — 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 Workers 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.