Thursday, June 20, 2024

Crime victims may get fewer services as federal aid drops. States weigh how to help

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Amanda Hernández And Jennifer Shutt | Stateline.org (TNS)

Groups that assist crime victims across the United States are bracing for significant financial pain after the amount available from a major federal victim services fund plunged $700 million this year.

Congress recently lowered spending to $1.2 billion from the fund, which provides grants to nonprofit and local programs across the country.

This latest round of cuts has sparked widespread concern among district attorney’s offices, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, child advocacy centers and law enforcement agencies that offer victim support services. Many of these organizations and agencies now expect to have to close locations, lay off staff and cut back on services.

Meanwhile, the drop in dollars has many experts and advocates rethinking the current, uncertain system of helping crime victims. How much federal money is available every year is determined by a complex three-year average of court fees, fines and penalties that have accumulated — a number that has plummeted by billions during the past six years. The fund does not receive any taxpayer dollars.

Karrie Delaney, director of federal affairs for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said the slowdown of court cases during the COVID-19 pandemic and the last administration not prosecuting as many corporate cases has affected the fund more than usual.

RAINN is the country’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization. It operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE) alongside local organizations and runs the U.S. Defense Department’s Safe Helpline. It “also carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice,” according to its website.

“I think what’s important from RAINN’s perspective is the actual impact that those fluctuations have on the survivors that we support and organizations and service providers across the country,” Delaney said.

When the federal cap decreases, she said, organizations that support crime victims often turn to state and local governments to make up the gap. And a lot of the times there isn’t enough money to do that.

Victim services providers say that smaller groups or branches, particularly those in rural towns or counties, are at an especially high risk of closing because of the expected cutbacks. Many rely solely on federal dollars.

Shakyra Diaz, the chief of federal advocacy with the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which advocates for crime victims, said many groups are “seriously in a situation where they may have to close their doors, they may have to cut services, they may have to cut staff, they may have to tell crime victims, ‘I cannot help you right now. You have to wait six months.’”

In at least three states — California, Colorado and Maine — state legislators have proposed bills that would create new avenues for state-based funding for victim services. A couple of bills would inject general state dollars into victim services to offset the federal cuts, while one would create a new tax on firearms and ammunition, and yet another would increase criminal penalties on corporations. The money collected from taxes or fines would then go toward supporting victim services.

The federal crime victims fund gets its money from fines, forfeited bonds and financial penalties in certain federal cases.

The year-by-year uncertainty around how much money will come from federal crime cases, which directly affects how much will be available to states to distribute to victim services providers, makes it challenging for groups to budget over the long term.

“Services for victims and resources for victim services are already so tight. And so when you’re talking about taking a pot of money that’s already stretched at its best and making it smaller — it’s frankly terrifying,” said Renée Williams, the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

The federal fund was established in 1984 under the Victims of Crime Act, known as VOCA. Congress tried to stabilize the fund in 2000 by setting an annual cap on withdrawals. The cap remained below $1 billion a year until 2015, but Congress raised it to $2.3 billion that year, and in 2018 it peaked at $4.4 billion.

But in fiscal year 2023, Congress lowered it to $1.9 billion, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Then, the cap plummeted, and by fiscal year 2023, Congress had set it at $1.9 billion, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice.

This past March, Congress again lowered the cap, to $1.2 billion, a drop of more than 35%. The cuts will not take effect until October of this year, when the federal government’s next fiscal year begins.

Victim services groups say that the demand for help has continued to surge. Some anticipate the grant process to become even more competitive.

They’re asking state lawmakers for help.

State legislation

For Stand Up Placer, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking in Placer County, California, the anticipated federal cuts are expected to slash about $700,000, or 22%, of the group’s budget, according to Cheryl Marcell, the organization’s CEO.

Some of the group’s services, such as legal counseling, are likely to be scaled back. Instead of serving the current caseload of 500, the group may only be able to accommodate 200 clients, Marcell said.

In California, local district attorney’s offices are grappling with how to address this funding shortfall, according to Jonathan Raven, assistant CEO of the California District Attorneys Association and former Yolo County chief deputy district attorney.

Offices are considering options such as laying off staff, requesting local funding or scaling back services altogether, Raven told Stateline.

“The people that are victimized that are the most vulnerable are no longer going to get the services that they should expect and they do deserve,” Raven said. “It’s really going to be a significant impact across California and across the country.”

State legislators in California have proposed two bills aimed at mitigating the federal cuts.

One of the bills would require state supplemental funding whenever the federal VOCA award is reduced more than 10% than the amount awarded the prior year. The bill is in committee.

The other bill, which is still under consideration in the Assembly, would increase fines levied on corporations convicted of misdemeanor and felony offenses. These fines would be used to fund a new California Crime Victims Fund.

In Colorado, the legislature passed a bill proposing a more permanent state funding source for victim services through a 9% gun and ammunition excise tax. The tax revenue would be spent on crime victim support services, mental health services, school safety and gun violence prevention.

The bill is now headed to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who has until June 7 to sign or veto it, according to his press secretary. If he signs it, the measure will go before voters on the November ballot.

Meanwhile, in Maine, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed a budget bill in April that includes a one-time allotment of $6 million for victim services.

Effects on services for victims

There are about 12,200 victim services providers in the United States, with nearly a quarter of them located in the country’s most populous states — California, Florida, Texas and New York, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2017 census.

Ohio has more than 400 victim services providers, many of which receive funding from the federal crime victims fund. Last year, the state received $46.6 million.

But for fiscal year 2024, Ohio has been awarded just $26.7 million, a 42.8% decrease from 2023 and a 77% decrease from 2018.

With such a steep cut, some victim services providers in Ohio fear they will no longer be able to serve rural communities, particularly those in the Appalachian region. For the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, a statewide coalition that supports rape crisis centers, losing funding could reduce its support to the 12 counties that do not have local rape crisis centers or programs.

“It’s the places that already don’t have great access to services and that have never had access to services [that] will be the ones to have whatever access they have further reduced,” said Emily Gemar, the group’s director of public policy.

Court-appointed special advocate programs in Appalachian counties also are expected to bear the brunt of the funding cuts, according to Doug Stephens, the executive director of Ohio CASA, which oversees 47 local programs covering 60 counties that support children navigating the court system. Stephens anticipates as many as 10 local programs shutting down.

“They are working very hard to provide the same services as the big cities,” he said in an interview. “The only way they can stay open is with VOCA funding.”

In South Carolina, victim services providers and Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson are urging the state legislature to offset the looming federal cuts. Wilson has requested $15 million, which is just enough money to keep existing services.

The state Senate has proposed a $5 million allotment, while the House has put forward a $3 million proposal. Under either plan, current projects could face cuts ranging from about 15% to 30%, according to the attorney general’s office.

Richland County, South Carolina, Sheriff Leon Lott, whose department receives VOCA funding and employs victim advocates who help people go through the criminal legal system, said the state should offer more support.

“When things like this happen, people just think about dollars. What we see is the real people, we see the feelings, we see the pain and emotions they’re going through,” said Lott, a Democrat. “This loss of funding, I’m afraid, will have a negative impact on the things that we try to do with victims and may end up victimizing them even more.

“If the feds are not going to provide the money, then the state needs to do it.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

©2024 States Newsroom. Visit at stateline.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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