Crime victim advocates fear that their aid from Congress may be cut significantly as Congress struggles to fund federal government operations during an election year and a pandemic.
Since the mid-1980s, federal aid to organizations that help crime victims has come from a fund made up of fines and penalties paid by companies and other entities that are convicted of federal crimes.
Because the amounts paid in such cases vary widely from year to year, Congress determiness an amount from the fund each year to benefit victims. A total of $2.641 billion was allocated the year that ended Sept. 30.
The fine totals have been declining, however, as the Justice Department increasingly is using “deferred prosecution” agreements in which accused companies agree to pay fines and change questionable practices in lieu of being prosecuted.
Because such cases are not convictions under the law, any fines and penalties involved do not go to the federal Crime Victims Fund (CVF).
Such cases may involve large sums.
For example, in September, JP Morgan entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department in connection with charges against the company for wire fraud between 2008 and 2016 relating to unlawful trading in markets for precious metals futures contracts and U.S. Treasury futures contracts.
JP Morgan will pay more than $920 million in a penalties. Some of it compensates victims, but money paid to the U.S. government does not go to the crime victim fund because the case was not a criminal conviction.
On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its recommendations for funding federal agencies for the current fiscal year. It called for a $1.5 billion payment for crime victims aid, much lower than last year. A House committee this summer recommended a figure slightly above the current total.
In the hope of restoring higher funding amounts, a coalition of anticrime and social service organizations has gathered signatures from 1,100 groups from around the U.S. on a letter to congressional leaders seeking an amendment to the federal Victims of Crime Act that would deposit penalties and fines from non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements into the victims fund.
The deadline for groups to sign the plea is this Friday, Nov. 13.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence, a leader of the coalition, says that more than 6,000 local organizations rely on federal funds “to provide lifesaving direct services to victims of all types of crime annually. Without VOCA funds, many victim service programs would cease to exist, leaving survivors and victims with nowhere to turn.”
The draft letter to Congress said the funding downturn for victims coincides with “continued increased need, particularly for African-American communities that have been disproportionately impacted, for services resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced state and local funding.”
Advocates say Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grants from the Justice Department decreased by 25 percent last year.
In addition, they say that state victim compensation funds also face financial challenges due to decreased revenue, and many are unable to provide adequate compensation to help survivors pay for medical bills, counseling, lost wages, and other costs.
Victim advocates say the legislative change would add about $2 billion in criminal fines and fees into the fund.
In its report issued on Tuesday, the Senate subcommittee that handles Justice Department appropriations said that receipts by the federal victim fund fell to $495,000,000 in the last fiscal year, marking the second consecutive year of “extraordinarily low collections.”
The panel said its recommendation for current fiscal year funding is consistent with recent deposits into the fund, “and aims to strike the appropriate balance of providing the necessary resources and ensuring that the CVF has sufficient, sustainable balances into the future.”
It is not clear when the lame duck session of Congress will act on federal appropriations. A “continuing resolution” that funds federal operations ends on December 11.
Negotiations between the Trump administration and Congress are continuing on another COVID-19 relief bill.
Congressional staff members say it is possible that lawmakers will combine a COVID-19 bill and an “omnibus” appropriation bill into a large measure that could get approval before Congress leaves for the December holidays.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.