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Testimony of Mary Lou Leary

Executive Director: National Center for Victims of Crime

Submitted to the House Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice, and Commerce, and Related Agencies

Committee on Appropriations

April 8, 2005

Regarding the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Fund

The National Center for Victims of Crime submits this testimony to urge members of the Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice, and Commerce, and Related Agencies to reject the proposed rescission of the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Fund as part of the Department of Justice appropriations legislation.  In addition, we urge Subcommittee members not to allow the creation of additional earmarks from the VOCA Fund, and to set this year's cap at $675 million for Fiscal Year 2006.

The National Center for Victims of Crime, the leading national resource and advocacy organization for victims of crime, knows the considerable and urgent funding needs of those who serve victims of crime. Since our founding in 1985, we have worked with public and nonprofit agencies throughout the country, providing information, support, and technical assistance to thousands of victims, victim service providers, allied professionals, and advocates.  Our toll-free information and referral Helpline alerts us to the needs of crime victims nationwide.  Through our Training Institute and our daily interactions with our members and the 8,600 crime victim service providers in our referral network, we stay informed of their work and know the impact of federal-level funding decisions on their ability to meet the needs of victims.  In short, we hear from victims and service providers every day about the impact and importance of the VOCA Fund.

About the VOCA Fund

Congress created the VOCA Fund twenty years ago to provide on-going, dedicated federal support for state and local crime victim programs.  It is funded by criminal fines and penalties imposed on federal offenders.  Most of the funds are distributed each year by formula grants to the states to fund: (a) crime victim compensation programs, which pay many of crime victims' out-of-pocket expenses that directly result from the crime; and (b) crime victim assistance programs.  The VOCA Assistance funding supports more than 4,400 state and local victim programs, including rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, victim assistants in law enforcement and prosecutor offices, and other direct services for victims of crime. VOCA funds also support services such as:

  • a program for victims of elder abuse in Media, Pennsylvania;
  • counseling and support for child victims and witnesses of crime in Bradenton, Florida;
  • services to homicide survivors in Cranston, Rhode Island;
  • the state MADD office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana;
  • the Court Appointed Special Advocate program in Bristol, Virginia; and
  • a hospital-based program for victims of violent crime in East St. Louis, Illinois.

VOCA assistance dollars fund services that help victims in the immediate aftermath of crime, including accompaniment to hospitals for examination; hotline counseling; emergency food, clothing and transportation; replacing or repairing broken locks; filing restraining orders; support groups; and more.  VOCA money also funds assistance as victims move through the criminal justice system, including notification of court proceedings, transportation to court, help completing a victim impact statement, notification about the release or escape of the offender, and help in seeking restitution.

Along with funding programs that serve victims, VOCA funds support crime victim compensation, which steps in when victims have no insurance, no workman's compensation, and no other assistance to meet out-of-pocket expenses related to the crime.  The crime victim compensation program pays medical bills, counseling costs, crime scene cleanup, burial costs, and similar expenses.  The VOCA Fund reimburses states for 60 percent of their compensation costs.

The importance of VOCA funding

VOCA assistance grant money is crucial to enable both criminal justice system-based and community programs to serve victims of crime.  Programs report that they have already made significant cuts due to recent reductions in state and private funding.  They have already taken such steps as closing satellite offices, reducing services for family members of victims, cutting staff positions, and eliminating staff training.  The VOCA subgrants have been their remaining stable source of funding.

Programs are continually seeking additional funding from any viable source, not only to restore the core services they have already reduced but to meet the growing needs they recognize in their communities.  As examples, programs see a great need to extend services to elderly victims, teen victims, immigrant victims, victims with disabilities, and victims in rural areas.  Programs also report a need for technology that can increase their efficiency and effectiveness-such as automated victim notification systems, databases to enable service providers to coordinate their efforts for a single victim, and Web technology to improve their outreach to the community.  

Why the VOCA Fund currently has a balance

In 1999, Congress acted to ensure the stability of VOCA funding.  For many years, all money collected in a given year was disbursed in the following year.  However, the nature of the funding stream-all criminal fines on federal offenders-caused the level of available funding to vary significantly.  In some years, large fines against corporate offenders caused a surge in deposits.  In 1999, Congress chose to reserve a portion of the deposits from such years to offset lower collections in leaner years.  That year, Congress placed a cap on the amount of funding disbursed from the Fund.  The appropriations conference report noted that "the conferees have taken this action [delaying annual Fund obligations] to protect against wide fluctuations in receipts into the Fund, and to ensure that a stable level of funding will remain available for these programs in future years" (FY 2000; Conf. Rpt. 106-479).

Reject the proposed rescission           

The administration's proposed budget for FY06 would rescind the balance of the VOCA Fund at the end of FY06.  This rescission, which would include any amounts remaining after the FY06 appropriation and all moneys collected in FY06, would produce a zero balance in the VOCA Fund at the start of FY07.  If enacted, this proposal would cause havoc in the victim assistance and compensation arenas, and risk permanently destabilizing the web of support for victims of crime that has been built during the past 20 years.

Impact of rescission on victim compensation

Crime victim compensation programs must know where they stand financially at the outset of the year to make payments predictably and on time.  When preparing their budgets, state compensation programs assume they will receive reimbursements for

60 percent of their qualifying payouts to victims, as the Victims of Crime Act provides.  But if the VOCA Fund has a zero balance at the beginning of FY07, state compensation programs cannot be sure that they will receive that entire reimbursement.  It could be an entire year before a compensation program knows, for example, whether it can pay a physician's bill for an assault victim's emergency surgery. During that year, the assault victim may have to endure repeated harassment from bill collectors while waiting for a decision on his compensation claim.  A delay in payment and uncertainty in the amount of the VOCA grants to compensation programs is a bureaucratic headache to administrators, but an injustice to victims of crime awaiting payments.

The proposed rescission would also undermine a number of social goals that compensation programs were created to fulfill.  The resulting delay and uncertainty would hamper the ability of crime victim compensation to help a victim rebuild his or her life following a crime.  In addition, compensation programs encourage victims to report criminal offenses and cooperate in the prosecution of those offenses, because such actions are typically prerequisites to receiving compensation payments.  In this time of increased victim and witness intimidation, such a tangible benefit to victim cooperation is crucial to the functioning of our criminal justice system.

Impact of rescission on victim services           

The rescission would undermine the ability of many victim assistance agencies to keep their doors open.  VOCA assistance dollars provide ongoing support to existing programs that help victims through the criminal justice process to provide them needed counseling and support to recover from the offense.  Even as they struggle to diversify and expand their funding sources, victim assistance agencies must still rely on their VOCA grants to remain open.           

A rape crisis center that loses its VOCA funding, even for several months, is likely to lose staff and discontinue services-which hurts both victims and the program's longterm viability.  When a victim seeks the center's help to cope with a traumatic sexual assault, it's no good telling her to come back in six months when a counselor may be available.  When the rape crisis center has to end its outreach and services for Spanish-speaking victims, it's no good trying to pick up the pieces a year later when some funding is restored.  The damage has been done, and the center's work to build relationships and a reputation with that community has been set back years.    

Similarly, if a criminal justice agency loses the funding for its victim assistance staff position, the loss disrupts the office's efforts to maximize the victim's effective participation in the criminal justice process.  It also undermines the ability of the criminal justice system to comply with crime victims' rights laws.

Moreover, the state granting agencies that direct VOCA funds to providers must know at the outset of each year the total amount of VOCA victim assistance dollars they will have to disburse before they begin making grants.  Such information is integral to their ability to responsibly and effectively manage such a formula grant.

FY06 VOCA Funding should be set at $675 million, with no additional earmarks

Finally, even though our first priority is the rejection of the proposed VOCA Fund rescission, we also urge you to set the cap on the VOCA Fund at $675 million for Fiscal Year 2006 and block additional earmarks from the VOCA Fund, even for projects that serve crime victims.  Congress designed VOCA formula grants to allow each state to fund victim services on the basis of the needs and strategic plans of that state.  Additional earmarks on money from the general VOCA Fund would thwart Congress' intentions in designing the Fund.   

Congress' creation of the VOCA Fund in 1984, a landmark step, fundamentally changed the way our nation responds to victims of crime.  In establishing the Fund, Congress acted to provide ongoing support for services and compensation programs that help victims rebuild their lives.  We urge you to continue this great effort by rejecting the administration's proposal to rescind the balance of the VOCA Fund, appropriating

$675 million from the Fund for FY06, and resisting pressure to further earmark the Fund.