Thirty years ago, Congress passed the Victims of Crime Act, which directed money from fines and fees paid by criminal offenders to programs designed to help their victims. Since then several billion dollars have been doled out, not just to federal victim-assistance programs but to all 50 states, which in turn funnel money to agencies providing counseling and other services as well as cash support for uncovered medical bills, lost wages and, in extreme cases, funerals. It's a valuable program that could do even more if Congress would let it.
The money is distributed through the Crime Victims Fund, which notably does not take in or spend any tax dollars. In addition to the court fines and penalties, the fund receives forfeited bail, proceeds from confiscated property, special court assessments ranging from $25 for individuals convicted of misdemeanors to $400 for corporations convicted of felonies, and donations.
For the first eight years of its existence, Congress capped annual deposits to the Crime Victims Fund at levels ranging from $100 million to $150 million. Congress lifted the cap in 1993, and the annual deposits then swung wildly, leading to inconsistent disbursements and fears that the program might get overextended. Hoping to stabilize things, Congress in 2000 set an annual spending cap at $500 million, which has risen to the current level of $730 million. But meanwhile, deposits have skyrocketed, primarily because of white-collar prosecutions. In 2012, the fund took in nearly $2.8 billion.
As a result, the fund now holds more than $9 billion, enough under the current spending cap to last 12 years. That's money that should be going to crime victims sooner. But for complicated bureaucratic reasons having to do with how the Department of Justice budget is calculated, raising the cap on disbursements could mean that other programs would have to spend less. That's something Congress could easily fix.
Until it does, money collected from criminals to help victims is parked in federal accounts. Groups such as the National Juvenile Justice Network, the National Center for Victims of Crime and the National Assn. of Attorneys General have called for raising the disbursement cap, and that is a sane idea. Activists say existing victim-assistance programs are overstretched and that many crime-hit communities lack support programs. Freeing up more of the fund could help address that.
This year — the law's 30th anniversary — would be a good time for congressional leaders to revisit the Crime Victims Fund and determine a more reasonable, responsible and effective level of spending.