UNITED STATES NEWS

Safety net with holes? Programs to help crime victims can leave them fronting bills

Jul 24, 2023, 9:06 PM

Pamela White stared at the silver tree with twinkling lights while she cleaned out her son’s apartment, wondering how in a matter of days she went from celebrating Christmas to having to think about headstones and burial plots.

Her son, Dararius Evans, was an Army reservist and veteran who had survived a deployment in Iraq. A few days after Christmas 2019, the 28-year-old was killed in a shooting outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The shooter was sentenced to life in prison last year.

White and her family, who live outside of New Orleans, turned to Louisiana’s victim compensation board for help paying for the unexpected funeral. She was met with administrative hurdles, a denial that blamed her son for his own death, a lengthy appeal — all while paying up front through a personal loan that gathered interest as she waited.

Thousands of crime victims each year are confronted with the difficult financial reality of state compensation programs that are billed as safety nets to offset costs like funerals, medical care, relocation and other needs. Many programs require victims to pay for those expenses first and exhaust all means of payment before they reimburse costs, often at rates that don’t fully cover expenses.

The programs also struggle under often unstable funding mechanisms that leave their budgets vulnerable to shortages and the changing priorities of lawmakers. Well-intentioned prison and criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing incarceration have caused shortfalls in some states that rely heavily on court or prison fines and fees for funding.

Advocates say most states’ requirement that victims pay upfront can leave out people living on the edge of financial disaster who are often most vulnerable to a crime.

“So many families often can’t rely solely on that reimbursement model. … Those funds take months to arrive to families,” said Aswad Thomas, vice president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit working to reform victim compensation and other aspects of the criminal justice system.

Some programs do offer to directly pay funeral homes or medical providers. But for victims in places that don’t, the expense can mean not being able to pay rent or having to decline services like counseling because the grocery bill is more pressing.

Programs also require victims to exhaust other payment options first, like insurance, lawsuit awards or even crowdfunding. If a family member or friend starts a GoFundMe drive, it could cause some programs to reduce an award or claw back already granted money.

The wait for help also causes financial strain. While some states report claims are processed within days, others take months or even years. The average processing time in 2022 was three months, according to federal data collected from states.

Andrew LeFevre, the executive director of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, which oversees victim compensation and other state programs, said more stable funding sources would mean faster payments and more victims having access to help.

About a dozen states get most or all of their funding from recurring state budget dollars. But many states have put the onus of paying for the programs on people in the criminal justice system – court fines, taking a percentage of prisoner wages or prison commissary fees.

Those funding streams can fluctuate greatly. Temporary court closures early in the pandemic, sentencing reforms and changes to how some prosecutors charge misdemeanor crimes have all meant fewer dollars for many state programs.

LeFevre has been talking to Arizona lawmakers for years about the need for stable funding. Over the last decade, revenue dropped 38% in the state’s Criminal Justice Enhancement fund, largely gathered through surcharges on criminal and civil penalties, that pays for compensation and other programs.

Last year, Arizona lawmakers bolstered the program with $10 million in one-time American Rescue Plan money and supplemented its budget with a recurring $2 million in general funds. But even that is considerably less than the about $14 million annually LeFevre estimates the program needs to serve all victims in the state without using criminal justice funds.

“We didn’t advertise the program (to victims) ourselves,” LeFevre said. “Because the last thing we wanted was to have twice as many victims coming forward and not be able to help them.”

Hawaii’s program has relied primarily on fines and fees since 1998. But chronic shortfalls nearly forced the program to close in 2022. An influx of general funds from the legislature to pay staff “saved” the program, according to an annual report.

A handful of state legislatures have used one-time general fund infusions to plug budget holes created by the downstream effects of criminal justice reforms.

California’s restitution fund fell by about 27% from fiscal year 2021 to 2022. State lawmakers boosted general fund dollars to cover the gap and for the following budget year. But the program still relies partly on the unstable restitution fund, which advocates say makes lawmakers hesitant to expand the program or remove hurdles.

Many states rely heavily on matching dollars they get from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime. But even its Crime Victims Fund depends on fluctuating criminal fines, penalties, forfeited bail and other special assessments, which has also meant financial uncertainty.

Less money was going to the federal fund after a shift in legal strategy led to more deferred federal prosecutions, usually in white-collar crime cases, which means those cases don’t go to court if fines or other conditions are met. Congress addressed that in 2021 by redirecting fines from those pre-prosecution agreements into the fund. Lawmakers also increased the percentage of matching funds states receive annually.

In Louisiana, past funding shortages had left victims approved for compensation waiting sometimes more than a year to receive help. The state started clearing the backlog in 2017 by transferring money saved by lower incarceration costs created through prison reform, which also increased its federal reimbursement.

White’s application filed in 2020 wasn’t part of the backlog, but it still took close to two years for her case to be settled. Each Christmas, she put up the silver tree from Dararius’ apartment. And she waited.

During her appeal hearing, White pleaded with the board, saying that even if a fight had led to her son’s killing, he was still a person who didn’t deserve to die.

“I made them think about it. That was a life taken — that wasn’t an animal,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they were arguing. It doesn’t matter if they got in a fistfight. … It doesn’t warrant a person losing their life.”

The board reversed its decision and gave White $5,000 — the most offered for funeral assistance at the time. But the loan White had taken out was for $6,000 and gained interest as she made the monthly payments.

White was able to weather those payments, but she knows many people can’t.

Elizabeth Ruebman, a New Jersey-based victims advocate and former adviser on compensation to the state attorney general, said compensation programs currently are not designed for emergency needs.

“It’s slow, it’s bureaucratic. We’re talking about people who have a crisis right now,” she said.

Many states do offer emergency awards to help victims through the immediate aftermath of crime, but advocates say those awards are flawed. They often are restrictive, capped as low as $500, and are deducted from any later award. About a dozen states don’t offer emergency awards at all.

The AP found the maximum awards programs offer ranged from $10,000 to $190,000 in individual states. Many programs haven’t increased those amounts for decades: North Dakota, Montana and Rhode Island last raised their caps in the 1970s.

Programs have lagged less in raising limits on individual expenses like funerals. But many states don’t offer enough money to cover the actual cost of burying a loved one. The National Funeral Directors Association estimated the median cost of a funeral with burial vault was more than $9,400 in 2021. Only a dozen states offer enough to cover that median cost.

Over the years, some states have increased the amount available for medical bills for people who suffer catastrophic injuries due to a crime. But in some states even those catastrophic amounts only add up to an extra $10,000, which doesn’t cover the lifelong costs of injuries like losing the ability to walk.

New York’s program is unique because it doesn’t cap reimbursements for medical expenses. That includes lifelong help with replacement prosthetics, extended physical therapy needs or equipment not always covered by medical insurance. Some payouts have reached millions of dollars, administrators said.

Kingsley Joseph was 20 years old and living in New York City when he was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down in 2007. His college career was put on hold. He couldn’t continue to live with his parents in their walk-up apartment. He couldn’t keep his job as a ramp agent at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Joseph’s best option was a nursing facility where many of the other patients were decades older than him. A staff member there told Joseph about New York’s victim compensation program.

Joseph applied and was approved for lost wages — money that helped him get an accessible apartment. The program has paid for medical equipment like a therapy bike that helps maintain leg muscle.

New York’s program also includes sometimes overlooked expenses, like training for a new career after a catastrophic injury. Joseph received an occupational therapy award that helped him get his advanced medical physics degree.

The 36-year-old now works in cancer care.

“They invested in me as a person,” he said. “And I am incredibly grateful for that.”

___

Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey. Lauer reported from Philadelphia.

___

This is the third in an occasional Associated Press series examining crime victim compensation programs. Send confidential tips to ap.org/tips. The Associated Press receives support from the Public Welfare Foundation for reporting focused on criminal justice. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Safety net with holes? Programs to help crime victims can leave them fronting bills