Advocates worry about possible cut to crime victim funding

Advocates fear cuts to federal crime victim funding

Advocates for crime victims in Maryland are urging Congress not to cut money from a fund that helps them.

The bipartisan budget agreement signed by President Barack Obama this month to fund the federal government beyond the next presidential election calls for removing $1.5 billion from the Justice Department's Crime Victims Fund. Dozens of nonprofits, prosecutors' offices and other agencies in Maryland rely on grants from the fund to support services such as counseling, temporary housing, and legal services for victims.

While lawmakers included the reduction to balance the federal government's books, it's not yet clear whether the funding will actually be cut. That will be decided as part of the appropriations process. Congress has until mid-December to work out those details.

"We're obviously very concerned and closely monitoring that process," said Christopher B. Shank, executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which administers the federal funding in Maryland.

The potential cuts come after a large increase for Maryland and other states in the current fiscal year. The state received $36 million in Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding this fall to be spent over three years, up from $8 million the previous year, after Congress raised a long-standing cap on the amount of money that can be spent from the fund.

The Crime Victims Fund balance grew to nearly $12 billion last year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. But the amount of money that can be spent is capped by Congress. Last year, lawmakers raised the cap from $745 million to $2.36 billion.

The fund, which started in 1984, draws from fines paid by people and companies convicted of federal crimes, forfeitures of profits from crime, and other sources.

"This is not taxpayer money," said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, which supports victims of child sexual abuse and other trauma.

The center has used the federal funds for forensic interviewing services, to provide medical care for abuse victims, and for efforts against human trafficking.

Rosenberg said the budget deal has created uncertainty for future spending, and advocates are worried that a cut would set a bad precedent for victim funding. The center received a grant of about $143,000 this year.

"VOCA is a huge part of what we do," he said.

The Women's Law Center of Maryland is also urging lawmakers to take action to prevent cuts.

The fund supports the Multi-Ethnic Domestic Violence Project at the Towson-based center. The program provides immigration legal services to foreign-born victims of domestic violence and sexual assault so they can live and work legally in the United States without relying on their abuser for sponsorship.

The program received about $60,000 from the fund this year. Like other initiatives in Maryland, it got a 20 percent boost in VOCA funding this year.

"This [cut] would undo any encouraging news we've had," said Laure Ruth, legal director at the law center. "For us, it goes directly to how many people we can serve."

The center has more than 100 open cases as part of the multi-ethnic project.

"[Clients] go on to get college educations, they get jobs, they are able to raise their children out of poverty," Ruth said of the clients. "We think it's a tremendously important project and this would be really devastating to us."

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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