News: CJ Exclusives

JLF Legal Expert Says Eugenics Compensation Should Go Only to Living Victims

Including descendants in compensation would limit funds available for cash payments

The Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force should urge the General Assembly to provide payments only to the surviving victims of the state’s eugenics program and not to descendants of those who were sterilized. That’s the recommendation of Daren Bakst, director of legal and regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Bakst says any attempt to compensate both descendants and living victims would restrict the amount of compensation the victims might receive. Moreover, such a move would encourage attempts to exact reparations for the descendants of slaves or other persons who were not themselves victims of government policies that later were deemed immoral.

“When compensating actual victims,” Bakst said, “the injury is clear and the harm is concrete. When compensating descendants, any injury is speculative at best.”

At a meeting of the eugenics task force in early December, member Demetrius Worley Berry suggested the state should provide $20,000 “to the estates of any verified victims who die before [compensation] legislation is passed.” At a future meeting, perhaps as early as January, The Associated Press reported that the task force would decide “whether to compensate the estates of sterilization victims who are dead.”

In this year’s legislative session, House Bill 70 would have provided $20,000 in compensation to victims. The task force has considered recommending compensation ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 for each living victim. Victims also could receive supplemental benefits, such as mental health services.

North Carolina’s eugenics program sterilized more than 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974. Unlike most states with eugenics policies, the number of sterilizations in North Carolina actually increased after World War II, even though the practice was associated with the use of sterilization by Nazi Germany. State officials believe nearly 3,000 victims of forced sterilization are living, although fewer than 100 have been identified so far.

Bakst believes compensation could take several forms. For instance, in addition to a $20,000 cash payment, and assistance with mental health services, victims could be granted an exemption from state taxes for the remainder of their lives. Such an arrangement could be handled by providing the victims a nonrefundable tax credit equal to the average North Carolinian’s annual individual income tax payment, currently about $1,100.

To help underwrite the compensation fund, Bakst suggests eliminating the public campaign funds that underwrite the election campaigns of state judges and Council of State candidates.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar public financing scheme in Arizona violated the First Amendment to the Constitution. Bakst said the $7 million now in the judicial fund could be used to compensate the victims of sterilization who already have been identified. Additional funding could come from a check-off fund on state income tax returns or by creating a specialized license plate designated in remembrance of the victims of the eugenics program.

“There’s the potential here to provide victims much more than $20,000,” Bakst said. “While the state won’t be able to properly compensate the victims, it can take significant steps to right the wrongs.”