WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden on Thursday signed into law a measure that replenishes funding for victims of crime in the United States so they can start fresh, receive mental health counseling and potentially gain a new lease on life for themselves or their family in the face of trauma.
“When someone commits a crime it’s not enough to bring a predator to justice, we also need to support the victims,” Biden said from the East Room of the White House on Thursday before signing the resolution known as the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021.
It is an enhancement to the Victims of Crime Act first passed the House and Senate over 30 years ago.
When he was a senator, Biden recounted Thursday, he would visit shelters that catered to survivors of domestic violence.
“Many times the body language you would see when you walked in, the victims of crime find themselves [laying] in a ball. They are still suffering from not only serious physical abuse they received but emotional abuse. You could see the pain was still with them. When was this going to abate?” Biden said.
Women who are victims of domestic violence experience post-traumatic stress disorder no different than a soldier who is regularly shot at, Biden added, recalling women whose heads get smashed against walls nightly because dinner wasn’t prepared “right.”
Historically, the Crime Victims Fund supports services for individuals impacted by sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking and even drunken driving. But that fund, before the Senate passed this most recent legislation, was often at a deficit.
The revised act signed Thursday piles new funding into victim compensation programs for all 50 states. That means victims who find themselves struggling to pay for critical services in the wake of their trauma can receive financial assistance for things like counseling services. The fund can also go toward replenishing wage earnings that victims might have lost as a result of the crimes committed against them.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said domestic abuse survivors could experience mental health problems and symptoms of PTSD, even before research confirmed it. You could see it,” Biden said.
But the Crime Victims Fund shores up economic costs for survivors and simultaneously helps them navigate the court system. Funding can even go toward fixing a broken door kicked down by an abuser, Biden said Thursday.
In 2019, just over 230,000 victims received assistance.
Investments in the fund often varied from year to year, however, and were contingent upon the administration in office or the priorities of congressional lawmakers.
Maintained by the Department of Justice, the Crime Victims Fund is not supported by taxpayers but rather through penalties, forfeited bail bonds and other assessments collected by the nation’s federal court system, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It can also be funded through private donations or gifts.
Last year, because of “large fluctuations in deposits,” according to the Justice Department, Congress placed a cap on the amount of funding for distribution. The cap from 2000 to 2018 varied rather wildly as the years trudged on from $500 million to an excess of $4 billion. But in 2020, lawmakers set the cap at $2.46 billion.
Between 2017 and today, funds have plummeted 92% and resulted in a 70% reduction in victim assistance programs and grants, Biden said.
There is currently more than $6 billion in the Crime Victims Fund available, but the pool took a hit last year because prosecutions as well as nonprosecution agreements, or settlements, decreased overall.
Currently, those types of funds are sent directly to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Under the newly signed legislation and through what lawmakers call a “deposits fix,” the settlements from federal nonprosecution cases and deferred agreements will now go directly into the Crime Victims Fund.
In a statement after the bill unanimously passed the Senate 100-0 this week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, highlighted that the deposits fix could generate anywhere from $4 billion to $7 billion in additional revenue over the next three years.
States will also see a boost under the revised act. It ups the level of reimbursements to state programs from the federal government from 60% to 75%, and it will now be free for states to apply for an extension on VOCA assistance grants.
In 2020, the Justice Department distributed $1.8 billion in grants to victims around the country, funding an array of services but with most funding going to children’s advocacy centers, domestic-violence shelters, human trafficking and elder-abuse programs, as well as rape crisis centers and civil legal service organizations. Grant recipients are also made transparent online.
Though the Senate was able to unanimously approve the victims fund, Congress has hit a standstill on other restorative-justice measures, namely, police reform.
A deadline from the White House, and a self-imposed deadline among lawmakers, to pass police reform legislation on the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s death came and went this Memorial Day.
On Thursday, Senator Tim Scott, a Florida Republican who is working closely with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey to drum up a deal, told reporters on Capitol Hill: “If we’re having the same conversations next week, then it’s dead.”
Though lawmakers have yet to reach consensus, the American public seems to be on the same page or close to it. A Gallup poll published findings Thursday indicating that 58% of Americans surveyed want to see “major changes” to policing across the U.S. A YouGov poll conducted last year reported that 63% of Black Americans worry about themselves or a family member being victimized in a violent crime.
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