The nearly 23 million Americans who became crime victims in 2011 should be a high priority when President Barack Obama is inaugurated and the 113th Congress convenes in January 2013.
Declining crime rates over the past few decades have tempted us to forget how many individuals, families, and communities suffer the impact of crime every year. Yet the newly released Criminal Victimization 2011 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics is a wakeup call.
The report shows a 17 percent increase in violent victimization, especially in urban areas, and an 11 percent increase in property crimes. Although the reasons for these increases are not yet clear, we know that four million more crimes were committed in 2011 than in 2010.
We also know that crime victims are less likely to receive the help they need because many victim services are being cut in this tight economy, even as the financial impact of crime continues to rise. Just four years ago, the Department of Justice reported that the economic cost of crime to victims, most of whom are in the lower income brackets, totaled more than $17 billion a year.
Although our nation spends hundreds of billions of dollars on our legal, criminal justice, and corrections systems, only a fraction (less than one-half of one percent) of that amount is spent on crime victim compensation, victim assistance, and federal technical assistance programs.
As a result, victims are left to absorb most of the financial impact of crime themselves.
In 1984, Congress addressed this problem by establishing the Crime Victims Fund (aka the VOCA Fund) under the historic Victims of Crime Act. The intent of VOCA is to help meet the financial needs of victims and provide services to help victims in the aftermath of crime.
The Fund is financed not by tax dollars, but by federal criminal fines, forfeited bail bonds, penalties, and special assessments collected by the U.S. Attorneys Offices, U.S. federal courts, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), at the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice distributes resources from the Fund to states for victim assistance and crime victim compensation.
But at current funding levels, VOCA isn't able to meet the need.
Congress has capped funds on VOCA distribution to the states every year since 2000, in response to fluctuations in deposits to the Fund that year. So while the available resources have grown impressively over the years, Congress often hesitates to release the level of funds needed to better meet crime victims' needs.
That fact, combined with years of belt-tightening by local victim-service providers and criminal justice agencies in response to federal, state and local government cuts, have resulted in far too few services available in many communities—especially in tribal jurisdictions—to meet crime victims' critical needs.
Congress can address this problem by increasing the Crime Victims Fund cap for FY 2013 to $1 billion and ensuring the speedy release of the funds.
This amount, though not enough to meet the enormous need, would be an important step in strengthening the victim assistance network and would signal the Administration's and Congress's support for crime victims. It would increase state and local funding for crime victim compensation and services, and empower the Office for Victims of Crime to direct those funds more efficiently and effectively.
OVC will soon release its Vision 21 report, an ambitious initiative to assess and improve the victim services field's response to those victims around the country who need help. The report, drawing from literature reviews and nationwide stakeholder forums, will help OVC and the national victim response system more efficiently use the resources Congress releases each year from the Crime Victims Fund.
Congress can invest in the future and advance justice by helping victims of crime heal and recover.
The 23 million Americans victimized by crime last year deserve no less.
Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. She welcomes comments from readers.