Americans last year were 75 percent less likely to be victims of violent crime than in 1993, and 66 percent less likely to be victims of property crime. If there are fewer victims, why is the Justice Department setting aside more and more money for their exclusive benefit? So asks Washington Post columnist Charles Lane. Between 2000 and 2014, the Crime Victims Fund's balance grew from zero to $11.8 billion, about equal to Nicaragua’s entire economic output last year. Mass incarceration is our criminal justice issue du jour. In the tough-on-crime days of 30 years ago, “victims' rights” was the rage. In 1984, a Democratic Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, a law that assigned federal criminal fines to compensate and otherwise assist crime victims, rather than to the Treasury, as before. No thought was given, apparently, to raising taxes or cutting other spending to pay for this worthy purpose.
The Obama administration's aggressive prosecution of banks and drug companies brought the fund nearly $9 billion in negotiated fines between 2009 and 2014, far more money than the fund could legally spend. Last year, victims won a tripling in the annual amount the fund can spend, from $745 million to $2.4 billion. Given today's lower crime rates and difficult budget constraints, it's not clear that crime victims, or agencies that aid them, should enjoy preferential access to so much money, rather than, say, medical researchers, poor children or the military, Lane says. He suggests a possible alternative funding mechanism: “We could give half the fund to the Treasury, and use half to endow a new Crime Victims Aid Foundation, spun off from the Justice Department, that invests and makes grants like a private-sector philanthropy. Future fines would go to the Treasury, just as they did until 1984.”