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A Federal Fund For Victims Services Faces An Uncertain Future

Funding for the Victims Of Crime Act (VCOA) has fluctuated over the years. In 1993, Congress removed a yearly cap on deposits into the fund. 2000 was the first year with no limit on how much could be spent on victim assistance and grants. Data in chart is from the Congressional Research Service report "The Crime Victims Fund: Federal Support for Victims of Crime," which was updated in 2020. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]
chart of victims funds

When the May Dugan Center on Cleveland’s West side received a $1 million grant from the fund established by the Victims Of Crime Act (VCOA) in 2017, the social services agency started a trauma recovery center.

The next year, they decided to focus on victims of one type of crime: felonious assaults – people who have been shot or badly hurt. Survivors have a long list of needs beyond physically and mentally recovering from trauma, starting right after the crime is committed, the center’s Sue Marasco said.

“Can you feed yourself? Do you have a phone to communicate with everybody with? What’s happening with your kids’ schools? What’s happening with your work? If the car was crashed or the car was stolen, how is that going to affect all of the other things that you’re supposed to be travelling around to do over the next couple of days?” Marasco said.

And such cases are growing in Cleveland. As of the beginning of October, assaults with firearms are up 50 percent over 2019.

May Dugan took on about 350 cases this year and last year, mostly from Cleveland’s fourth police district, on the city’s southeastern side. Since it started, every district in the city has asked for a similar program, Marasco said.

“You know, police have a very specific job and they all hate walking away from a family in crisis,” Marasco said.

But from that first year of funding to the most recent round, the May Dugan Center’s VOCA funding has been cut nearly in half.

Agencies supporting crime victims across Ohio and nationwide are facing lost revenue this year because of deep funding reductions to the federal VCOA.

The crime victims fund was created by the 1984 Victims of Crime Act. Its coffers are filled every year by fines and penalties from federal criminal prosecutions. Agencies received large grants in 2018 primarily because of the federal government’s $14.7 billion settlement with Volkswagen for building cars that cheated on emissions tests.

The Adoption Network of Cleveland was one of the beneficiaries of that settlement. But its grant has gone from more than $400,000 a year in 2018 and 2019 to zero in 2020. The Geauga County women’s shelter – WomenSafe – lost about $100,000 in the most recent round. The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center saw a nearly $3 million funding drop in one year.

“Those cuts also come at the same time, same year, that we canceled our fundraising events due to COVID-19,” said Cleveland Rape Crisis Center CEO Sondra Miller.

The center used its nearly $8 million in VOCA grants in 2018 and 2019 to expand outside Cuyahoga County to establish the first specialized centers in Lake, Geauga and Ashtabula counties. Now they’re looking for ways to keep those services going.

“One of the decisions we have made is to sublease our Downtown Cleveland offices to another organization and redirect clients that were coming downtown for our services to some of our other satellite locations,” Miller said.

WomenSafe in Geauga County runs the only emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence in the county.

According to CEO Andrea Gutka, VOCA made up 5 percent of WomenSafe’s budget. The cuts will have to be made up from somewhere other than the shelter or services to victims, she said.

“Quite frankly, those services don’t take funding into account, as they shouldn’t,” Gutka said. “Because it’s a critical, basic need of providing a safe shelter for someone that’s at risk because of the cuts.”

The attorney general’s office announced 2020’s VOCA awards earlier this month, but also sent word to recipients about reductions coming in February or March, Gutka said. The cuts were deeper than what they were told to expect, she added.

“I don’t believe that agencies were asking for anything that’s overzealous, they’re asking for the direct service need for survivors,” Gutka. “I think we’re at a serious risk for burnout, and I think adding the fact that I’ve got people worried about whether they’re going to be employed tomorrow is a pretty significant strain on an already taxed and maxed system.

A key to the loss in VOCA funding is its reliance on corporate, white-collar prosecutions.

Steve Derene ran the National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators from 2001 until his retirement last year. He calculates just 73 companies accounted for two-thirds of the $36 billion dollars that have gone into the VOCA fund since 1985.

“To me that shows you how precarious the stability of the fund has been,” Derene said.

Derene’s list is made up of $100 million-plus fines paid by companies like Volkswagen, Pfizer and JP Morgan Chase. Under President Donald Trump, prosecutions for crimes like price fixing, pharmaceutical malpractice or insider trading have fallen off a cliff.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, white collar criminal prosecutions reached an all-time low in January of this year. Instead, the Justice Department is focused on prosecuting violent crimes.

But the shift in priorities doesn’t fully account for the current drop in the fund, according to Derene. He pointed to another, fairly new trend: the use of what are known as deferred prosecution agreements, or DPAs.

“In deferred prosecution agreement cases, that money, because there is no actual conviction, that money is not considered a criminal fine that gets deposited into the fund,” Derene said.

The federal government started using DPAs to extract fines and corporate reforms from companies in the 1990s. According to a 2014 article in the legal journal The Business Lawyer, an average of two cases a year were resolved with a DPA that decade. By 2008 it was up to 28 per year.

Derene sees a fairly simple fix for VCOA funding: change the law so fines and penalties from those agreements go into the fund too. That way, agencies will have to weather fewer drops like the one this year.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.