With federal crime victim funding expected to nearly quadruple in the next fiscal year, states have begun to plan how to spend what amounts to an unexpected windfall.
Under the 1984 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), all fines paid in federal criminal cases are set aside to help crime victims, but access to the funds every year was tightly limited until last December— when, as part of the federal budget deal, Congress approved a nearly fourfold increase from the most recent spending cap of $745 million to $2.36 billion.
That was good news for advocates, who have been fighting for years to get the full amount of available funds permissible under VOCA to help severely strapped crime victim organizations, such as domestic violence shelters, child abuse centers, as well as court-appointed sexual advocates, and organizations that assist homeless youth.
About $3.5 billion was paid into the VOCA fund in the last year, but victims could benefit from only a small fraction of that because of the cap.
Almost $9 billion of VOCA funding is currently available through criminal fees, assessments, forfeited bail bonds and the fee payments from the bureau of prisons. From 2000-2009 Congress set a funding cap at between $500 million- $635 million in 2000-2009; in 2011-2012 the funding cap was $705 million. A proposal to change the cap for this fiscal year has passed through the budget committee and is expected to be voted on the House floor this week.
“The need for victim programs greatly exceeded the funds given,” Steve Derene, Executive Director of National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators, told The Crime Report.
Derene, whose Wisconsin-based nonprofit helps states figure out how to spend their funds, was among those who have been lobbying the government to open its coffers. But the decision still took him by surprise.
“We don't know the reason for increasing the funding nor do we know how they came up with the dollar amount,” he said. “
But he and other advocates say states will now need to dust off plans for spending the funds off the shelves where they have been sitting for years.
The fund assists crime victims in two distinct ways: through assistance to programs and direct compensation. Assistance funding goes directly to service-oriented organizations, which help with emergency transportation or counseling; while direct compensation to the victim pays for lost wages, mental health counseling or other medical costs. (Victims are only compensated if they don't have insurance.)
Not Everyone is Happy
Most of the new funds to be released will be distributed solely in the assistance portion of the VOCA, leaving some advocates still disappointed.
“The compensation piece of the fund needs money to see real change to assist victims adequately,” said Dan Eddy, Executive Director of the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards, a Virginia based not-for-profit that advises members on assisting crime victims.
Each state will receive the funds based on a federal formula, which has guided their decision-making up to now. But many have already stepped up their game through surveys, focus meetings, and talking to providers about how to best use the additional funds they will be entitled to.
South Carolina, for example, changed its yearly funding cycle from July to October to better match the federal schedule.
“Federal awards to states from the US Department of Justice and the Office of Victims of Crime are being made later and later each federal funding year,” wrote Ed Harmon, Assistant Director and Justice Programs Administrator for the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, in an email to The Crime Report.
He noted that applicants are increasing the size of their grant requests, asking for operational costs which have not funded consistently over the last couple of grant cycles, one-time equipment purchases, and additional personnel to provide direct services to victims.
In Ohio, D. Michael Sheline Assistant Section Chief of the Crime Victims Section for the state's Attorney General , started by organizing listening groups around the state and surveying service providers. (Crime victims funds are run out of a variety of state offices around the country.)
Ohio is more prepared than most, Sheline told The Crime Report, noting the state has sufficient staff to handle the influx, dispersion and oversight of the funds.
Washer-Dryers, Furnaces for Shelters
The state has already begun receiving applications from prospective grantees.
Proposals range from support of basic needs such as washer-dryers and furnaces for domestic violence shelters to big-picture approaches that would work with youth transitioning out of foster care or with survivors of human trafficking.
Most of the monies from the grant will go to keep the “lights on” and increase staffing salaries, Sheline said, adding, “For many years programs have struggled with not having enough resources or staff.”
States and program administrators have three years to spend the current allocation, but many wonder whether future funding will return to the era of tight caps..
“People are excited,' said Sheline. “But this is a process that happens every year in Congress and the big question is: what about next year? Are we going to be able to sustain?”
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.