Lawmakers push for help as Utah crime victim fund is drained
By Brooke Adams
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Feb 25 2014 09:37AM
A fund used to help crime victims put their lives back together dipped into the red this year for the first time, leading the Utah Office for Victims of Crime to reduce payments and seek legislative action to stop money from flowing to unrelated expenses.
The Utah Crime Victim Reparation Trust Account has a reserve balance of "barely" $1 million, while its operating budget is projected to have a $2.5 million shortfall this year based on expected revenues, benefit payments and appropriations.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, attributed the shortfall to a more than decadelong practice of using the fund to cover criminal justice and substance abuse expenses and the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice’s administrative costs.
"It has not completely depleted itself, but we did reach a point already this year where we have already run out of the ability to pay all the reparations and have done an across-the-board 20 percent cut," Hutchings told the Executive Appropriations Committee recently.
The reduced payments began in January.
The fund also is in the process of making payments through the factual innocence program to Debra Brown, who spent 17 years in prison before a judge determined she did not commit the crime. The state was ordered to pay Brown nearly $570,800, an amount determined by statute.
"That is a payment that certainly doesn’t help our case," Gary Scheller, director of the Office for Victims of Crime, said in an interview.
Hutchings proposed covering that sum by shifting funds within the criminal justice agency accounts.
But since 2002, when lawmakers approved using the crime victim fund for other purposes, it has slowly seen expenses outpace revenues and has had to make other adjustments, too.
Among other things, lawmakers tapped $6.8 million from the fund for the Lone Peak diagnostic unit for sex offenders at the Utah State Prison, which shut down in 2009. The fund has paid more than $5 million for the VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) system, which alerts crime victims about hearings and changes in the status of an offender. It also has paid more than $16.5 million in administrative expenses for the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), which is tasked with coordinating various branches and levels of government concerned with criminal and juvenile justice.
If the fund were not paying such expenses, its revenues would be adequate to meet benefit payments plus maintain an adequate reserve for years when payouts exceed income, said Scheller. In fiscal year 2013, for example, the fund received $8.2 million and paid out $6.5 million to crime victims.
The crime victim office pays for such things as funeral, burial, medical, dental and counseling expenses for victims of violent crime or their family members that aren’t covered by insurance, workers’ compensation or other resources. It receives money from fines, fees and restitution payments made by perpetrators at the state and federal level; the office relies on the trust account to cover any gaps between revenue and benefits paid.
In any given year, it receives 7,200 to 7,400 applications for assistance. The highest payouts are for medical expenses, mental health counseling benefits and sexual assault forensic examinations.
Hutchings said fund payments were reviewed to ensure the office wasn’t "willy-nilly paying money to anyone who shows up. We dug into that and I’m confident they are doing an excellent job of screening, being payer of last resort and making certain that only those that are appropriate expenses qualify."
Examples of victims who have turned to the fund for help include a survivor of the 2007 Trolley Square shooting; a victim’s father who sought lost wages and travel expenses; and a victim who sought lost wages after he began having seizures due to the crime and was unable to work.
Because of its dwindling revenues, the office has taken "evasive" action to protect its reserve funds and make the most of its revenue over the past decade, Scheller said. Crime victims, for example, used to be eligible for $3,500 in mental health counseling services; that was cut to $2,500 or 25 visits, whichever comes first.
"We’re finding that is simply not adequate to help people recover from the trauma," he said.
In 2009, relocation benefits were reduce from $,2000 to $1,000. "Today, that is barely enough to cover a security deposit on a new lease," Scheller said, "and it doesn’t give you enough to move your possessions."
Another fallout of money diverted to other purposes: The state loses out on a 60 percent match in federal Victims of Crime Act funds for assistance provided to crime victims, Scheller said.
A legislative subcommittee is recommending — as proposed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert — that CCJJ receive $1.6 million in ongoing funds to cover its administrative costs so it no longer drains money from the crime victim fund. That request is ranked third on its priority list, behind six new Utah Highway Patrol troopers and additional criminal appeals attorneys for the Utah attorney general’s office.
It is the third time such a request has been made to lawmakers, Scheller said, and he hopes this time it will be well received.
"We’re trying to make the fund whole again," Hutchings said.
The office also has a task force looking at other funding sources for the VINE program, which was initially supposed to receive one-time start-up money from the fund. It also is investigating why restitution revenue is running about 2 percent lower than expected and ways to increase collections and the surcharge on penalties assessed on crimes.