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Regarding the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Fund

Testimony of Susan Herman, Executive Director, National Center for Victims of Crime.

Submitted to the House and Senate Subcommittees on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary, Committees on Appropriations

April 11, 2003

My name is Susan Herman, and I am the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. I submit this testimony to urge members of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary to raise the cap on the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Fund to $685 million for Fiscal Year 2004. In addition, I urge you to prevent the creation of additional earmarks off the top of the VOCA Fund.

The National Center for Victims of Crime is the leading resource and advocacy organization for victims of crime. We are well acquainted with the funding needs of the nation’s crime victim assistance programs. Since its founding in 1985, the National Center has worked with public and private non-profit organizations and agencies across the country, and has provided information, support, and technical assistance to hundreds of thousands of victims, victim service providers, allied professionals, and advocates. Our toll-free information and referral Helpline keeps us in touch with the needs of crime victims nationwide. Through our day-to-day interactions with our members and with the 7800 crime victim service providers in our service referral network, we are aware of the work they do and of the impact that funding decisions at the federal level have on their ability to meet the needs of victims. We also interact with crime victim service providers through our Training Institute, which offers training on a variety of issues to service providers throughout the country. In short, we hear from victims and service providers every day about the impact and importance of the VOCA Fund.

As you know, the VOCA Fund consists of fines and penalties imposed on federal offenders. The bulk of the money is distributed each year by formula grants to the states to fund both their crime victim compensation programs, which pay many of the out-of-pocket expenses incurred by victims, and victim assistance programs, such as rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, victim assistants in law enforcement and prosecutor offices, and other direct services for victims of crime.

Last year’s $600 million cap on the VOCA Fund translated to a cut in funding for crime victim assistance programs of approximately eight percent. This eight percent funding decrease resulted from a change in the VOCA formula enacted in October 2001 as part of the anti-terrorism legislation, the USA PATRIOT Act, Pub. L. 107-56. That change increased the amount of VOCA Funds paid to states for their crime victim compensation programs, leaving less available for grants to victim service agencies.

The amount of VOCA money a state receives for compensation is limited to a percentage of what that state paid out in a given year. Previously, states received a reimbursement of 40 percent of what they paid out in crime victim compensation. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2003, that amount increased to 60 percent of what the state paid out. The increase in VOCA funds that states received for compensation programs limited the funds available for crime victim services. The USA PATRIOT Act had coupled the formula change with an incremental annual increase in the VOCA cap that would have offset the loss of funds for victim services. That annual increase mechanism, however, was stricken by language in the appropriations measures for Fiscal Year 2002.

The impact of that eight percent cut has been significant for programs already suffering from reduced private giving and state support. From around the country, programs have reported to us that they have had to:

  • Lay off staff, or reduce full time staff to part time. Uniformly, programs reported that they were already operating at bare bones levels. The only area left to cut is staff time, which directly reduces services available to victims. Many programs also reported that there were no similar agencies or services in their area to whom victims could turn. The following response from a Louisiana rape crisis center was typical: “We have already cut as many positions as we can without shutting down entirely. We counsel victims of sexual assault, and any cut will mean no counseling for those victims.” In many instances, programs have only one or two paid staff, and the reduction in their time will necessitate elimination of extensive volunteer programs because there will be insufficient professional oversight and coordination.
  • Limit their geographic coverage. For instance, from Colorado, Michigan, and Virginia we heard from programs that had been serving victims in 5 to 10 counties; now they have had to pull back from service in the outlying regions, leaving those victims without services. Some programs serving rural victims can no longer reimburse mileage or phone costs for volunteer advocates who offer services throughout a large area.
  • Discontinue services for special populations of victims. In some places, victim assistance programs have recently conducted or been a part of needs assessments and strategic planning efforts, and thus have a clear picture of special victim populations which are not being adequately served. Many services that had been developed for special populations are being eliminated because of reduced funding. One program from Minnesota stated that their “immigrant and refugee program to sexual assault victims will be cut. The bilingual advocate for this program will most likely be laid off. The outreach to this population in our community has been building for the past 8 years. The trust and confidence from the community will be eroded. Most importantly, an underserved community will go unserved.”
  • Discontinue services for secondary victims. For example, many battered women’s programs, which had relied on VOCA funding to support services for the children who witnessed or sustained abuse, are having to restrict and even eliminate those services. A North Carolina shelter told us, “In [our] county there have been two domestic violence murders in 2003 one of which was a stalking case. The five children involved in those cases need our programs and we may not have the resources to serve them. Then what?”
  • Turn away crime victims. Victim service providers from Alabama, Massachusetts, and Nevada all reported that the numbers of victims seeking assistance, and the numbers of schools and other organizations seeking outreach programs, have increased at the same time the available funding has decreased. One North Carolina program noted, “County guidance counselors and medical professionals continue to identify and refer more and more children who are victims of family violence, sexual assault and sexual abuse due to the education provided by this agency to teach them how to recognize child victims/witnesses of domestic violence. Yet, we will not be able to offer our afternoon programming or summer programs to additional children until some of the current children enrolled in the program age out.”

The effect of this year’s cuts have been significant. The National Center for Victims of Crime is asking that the VOCA Fund cap be raised to $685 million for FY 04, to help programs make up for the loss in funding this year and enable them to begin to expand their programs. When we asked victim assistance programs about their spending priorities for any increase in funding, they reported the following needs:

  • Services to immigrant victims of crime. All over the country, there are limited services, or even a complete absence of services, for large groups of immigrant victims of crime. Such victims are often linguistically or culturally isolated. Without the availability of interpreters or bi-lingual service providers, such victims cannot access the services that may otherwise be available. Additionally, victims who come from a society where the police are not trusted, or a culture where sexual violence is unmentioned or domestic violence is condoned, often require a different approach to providing services. Effective victim services require ready access to service providers who are culturally knowledgeable and sensitive to these varying needs, and programs in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Wyoming all listed providing services to immigrant victims as a priority.
  • Services to victims in rural jurisdictions. Too many victims in rural jurisdictions still lack access to basic services. In many parts of the country, victims are hundreds of miles from the nearest rape crisis center or battered women’s shelter. Victim service providers in Alabama, Idaho, Kentucky, and Montana all reported a need to expand efforts to cover multi-county areas through the creation of satellite offices, the use of volunteers or staff to travel to victims’ homes or other locations; or to increase the use of the Internet to serve victims in rural communities.
  • Assistance to victims with disabilities. One area of greatest need is in reaching and serving crime victims with disabilities: developmentally disabled victims, mentally ill victims, hearing impaired victims, and others whose disability makes them simultaneously more vulnerable to crime and less able to access existing services. Many service providers, including programs in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, would like to expand their programs to provide appropriate services to such crime victims.
  • Assistance to elderly victims. A number of victim assistance programs noted a need to increase their services to elderly victims of crime, who often lack other forms of support and who may require a service provider to visit them in their homes. Victim assistance programs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming all listed services to elder victims as a priority
  • Assistance to teen victims. Many victim assistance programs are hoping to extend services to teen victims of crime, especially teen victims of dating violence. Providing prompt services to teen victims can significantly lessen the lifelong impact of crime, and programs in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Texas all described a need for services to teen victims.
  • Providing more timely services to victims. Victims in many programs are waiting weeks or months to get into counseling or support groups; victims in the criminal justice system may not be contacted until close to the trial stage. Victim service providers in Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia all spoke of the need to hire additional staff to eliminate or significantly reduce such waiting periods for services.
  • Serving victims of non-violent crime. As the incidence of identity theft and fraud have increased, and the understanding of the impact of non-violent crime on victims has grown, many victim assistance programs, including those in Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, expressed a desire to expand their services to include such victims.
  • Technology investments to enhance victim services. Many victim assistance programs reported that outdated computer equipment limits their efficiency. There is also a great need for case management software and assessment tools to help programs improve and evaluate their effectiveness in serving victims of crime. Programs in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas all noted such needs.

Finally, while our first priority is to see the cap on the VOCA Fund raised to $685 million for Fiscal Year 2004, we also urge you to discontinue earmarks for federal positions off the top of the VOCA Fund. New earmarks on the Fund have been enacted over the last several legislative sessions, limiting the amount of money ultimately available to states to fund local programs. These earmarks provide for victim/witness coordinators in U.S. Attorneys’ offices, for victim assistance in the FBI, and for an automated victim notification system at the federal level. Such expenditures are expected to be nearly $34 million in FY 03. These earmarks result in a significant decrease in funding available to help the vast majority of crime victims - victims whose cases are prosecuted and who are served at the state and local levels. Such federal positions may be warranted, but surely Congress can find other sources of revenue to support federal employees.

The most important action Congress can take to help this nation’s victims of crime is to provide the funding for services and compensation programs that help them rebuild their lives. Congress’ creation of the VOCA Fund in 1984 was a landmark action that fundamentally changed the way our society responds to victims of crime. We urge you to continue this great effort, by raising the cap on the VOCA Fund to $685 million, and resisting pressure to earmark the Fund. We must continue the progress of our national response to victims of crime.