When Crime Pays

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On March 7, in Davenport, Iowa, 26-year-old Carl Louis Johnson, Jr. appeared in U.S. Federal Court for sentencing on charges related to drug trafficking and possession of a firearm.

His punishment included jail time—11 ½ years in federal prison—and a $100 fine.

The extra penalty represented a different kind of “punishment”—a way for society to recoup the damage caused by Johnson to the fabric of society. Johnson’s $100 will be deposited in a federal fund designed to help crime victims deal with the emotional, physical and financial impacts of violence.

In Johnson’s case, the amount may seem puny. But it adds up.

The Crime Victims Fund, created in 1984 under the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), has collected an impressive $16 billion. A portion of that money is earmarked each year by Congress for specific crime victim services, such as domestic violence shelters, burial costs and support for victim advocates.

The fund has been one of the country’s most effective means of balancing the scales of justice, but decisions about how it is disbursed have often been a source of controversy.

The latest round of wrangling began last month when President Barack Obama proposed in his FY2013 budget message shifting several existing programs to be paid for through the victims fund.

Opponents have been quick to respond. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, immediately called the proposal a “troubling” retreat from the fund’s original promise of direct victim assistance.

“When Congress created the Crime Victims Fund, we made a promise to ensure a steady stream of funding to help victims of crime put their lives back together, regardless of the ups and downs of yearly budgets,” Leahy said in a press statement.

“We must keep that promise.”

DOJ Responds

The Department of Justice (DOJ) counters that the expansion of eligible recipients covers programs that fulfill the Act’s original mandate of victim assistance.

DOJ spokeswoman Kara McCarthy said the services that would be covered range from DNA and forensic activities and assistance for victims of trafficking, to counseling for children who have been exposed to violence.

“(It) would enable (the funds) to reach other vulnerable victim populations,” McCarthy said in an interview with The Crime Report. “This approach can expand the ultimate beneficiaries of the fund without jeopardizing existing programs.”

But that’s exactly what many groups charge it will do. They argue that the expansion could eventually result in fewer dollars for direct victim assistance.

“Many in the field have a real concern about opening the door to having a lot of things paid for from the Crime Victims Fund,” said Dan Eddy, Executive Director of the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards.

The $100 Johnson is expected to pay into the fund is small change compared to the fines levied on others in recent years.

Most of the money in the Crime Victims Fund coffers comes from much larger settlements, such as the $340 million fine Japanese bank Daiwa Bank Ltd. was ordered to pay in 1996 after pleading guilty to charges that it covered up more than $1 billion in trading losses.

Or the $1.2 billion fine Pfizer Inc. agreed to pay in 2009 after pleading guilty to selling drugs for purposes not approved by the federal government.

Under the 1984 act, eligible funds can be assessed on a broad number of federal criminal convictions, in addition to money from penalty assessments and bail forfeitures. The program is operated nationally through federal courts and Attorney General’s offices in each state.

The amount of the fine is determined by Sentencing Commission guidelines. In the case of a plea agreement, the amount is agreed upon by the government and defendant. The payment of fines is facilitated by the courts, and the money is paid directly into the Crime Victims Fund.

‘Key Funding Source’

Terri Poore, Director of Public Affairs at Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, said grants from the Crime Victims Fund are the “key funding source” for community-based support of crime victims nationwide.

They pay for a variety of services, including homicide survivors’ support groups, helping with burial expenses, funding a local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or providing rape crisis counseling.

“It’s really the fundamental base source of community support for victims’ issues,” she said, adding that her organization does not have a position on the budget proposal.

With contributions growing—particularly from large settlements— the fund is expected to have $7.4 billion available by the end of FY2012.

Each year, Congress sets a cap on how much money can be paid out of the fund. The cap is designed so that the fund’s recipients aren’t impacted by any ebb or flow of the bank balance. Without a cap, administrators say, recipients could see their payout increase dramatically one year, only to decrease dramatically the next. In 2012, the cap was $705 million.

The first payees are states. Between $10 million and $20 million is set aside from the cap for states to improve the investigation and prosecution of child abuse under the Children’s Justice Act.

Once those programs have been paid, money is administered to victim witness coordinators in U.S. Attorneys’ offices who assist victims with court proceedings, victim assistance staff in FBI offices, and to the Federal Victim Notification System.

The remaining funds are earmarked for state crime victims’ compensation grants (47.5 percent); state direct assistance services (47.5 percent); and discretionary grants from the Office for Victims of Crime (5 percent).

Raising the Cap

The Obama budget proposal raises the cap to $1.07 billion—a $365 million increase. That increase would not go through any of the payment structure described above, but would instead be used to pay for additional criminal justice programs.

McCarthy, the DOJ spokeswoman, said that because the cap would be increased, increasing the number of beneficiaries of Crime Victims Fund dollars would not have an impact on any current programs funded by the Crime Victims Fund.

Crime Victims Fund administrator groups disagree.

And they have the backing of some influential members of Congress, such as Leahy and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The proposal “essentially allows[s] the Justice Department to increase the size of the bureaucracy, without looking like they’re spending more money,” Grassley said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 16. “Instead, the crime victims fund takes the hit.”

According to Grassley, the Administration’s proposal is really meant to help the DOJ’s bottom line.

“(It) allows the Justice Department to continue to increase funding for bureaucratic components like the Criminal Division, Civil Division, Tax Division, and law enforcement components like the FBI, DEA and Marshals, while decreasing net expenditures,” he said.

Steve Derene, executive director of the National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators, said funding even worthy programs with money that is earmarked for direct victim assistance violates the intent of the Victims of Crime Act.

“Our concern isn’t that these are bad programs,” Derene said, noting that activities such as DNA assistance are largely law enforcement functions whose benefit to victims is at best indirect.

“But (helping) DNA is more of a law enforcement function (that) may be an indirect benefit to victims.”

A raised cap for FY2013 may cover the costs of those additional programs, but Derene worries what might happen in the future if the cap is lowered.

He points out that in such a case the programs added in this cycle could draw funds away from currently funded programs.

“When you keep adding things, there’s going to be less left over,” Derene said.

Laura Amico is editor of the nationally recognized online reporting project Homicide Watch Washington D.C., which covers every D.C. murder case from crime to conviction. She welcomes comment from readers.

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