Crime victims’ fund has 45th birthday, $2 billion payout

Forty-five years, $2 billion and seven governors later, the nation’s first government fund to ease the financial plight of crime victims remains in place, helping thousands of people in a program that is relatively little known but has had a dramatic impact.

“California became the first state in the nation to do this and today continues to be the model of compensation programs. Other states followed, we are still recognized nationally as the leader,” said Julie Nauman, executive director of the Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board.  

“Victim advocates kind of came together and decided that we need to do things differently. Victims needed to be treated with respect, with help. They don’t need to be hurt more,” she added.

Financed with a mix of federal money and state court fines and fees, the California Victim Compensation Program – the program operated by the compensation and claims board – attempts to help victims cover crime-related costs. Those typically include counseling, relocation, living expenses, medical help, income loss, job training, and the like.
By law, the maximum, per-claim amount is $70,000 and costs and losses that are handled by private insurance programs – auto theft insurance, for example – are not covered by the CalVCP.

Since 1965, the program has dispensed about $2 billion. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, 2010-11, they paid out some $25.6 million. More than 14,800 requests for money were received, Nauman’s office said.

In the 2009-10 fiscal year, some 57,254 applications were received, and 49,979 were approved with an average payment of $1,932. To qualify for the money, crime victims must demonstrate financial losses, directly out-of-pocket, or otherwise – criteria that are spelled out in the statute that created the program. If victims obtain compensation elsewhere – through insurance, for example – they cannot receive CalVCP money for the same loss.

About 2,000 applications were rejected, and the remainder – about 6,000 – have not yet been decided. The total payout in 2009-10 was about $96.5 million. In the current year, based on the first-quarter numbers, the CalVCP may pay out more than $100 million, which would be a record.

The year before, in 2008-09, 54,572 applications were received and 46,194 were approved, with 2,321 denied and the rest to be determined. The total payments were $94 million, with an average payout of $2,000.

But while a rising payout and increased workload may testify to the effectiveness of the program, it also means that it needs more money to operate. The program has a state-federal mix, getting 60 cents in federal money for every dollar of state funds.

The increase may be due to a number of factors, such as more people learning about the program and taking advantage of it, plus increases in a recession-ravaged economy.
But keeping the money coming in to meet the demand is a concern. CalVCP’s money doesn’t come from the General Fund – the state’s beleaguered coffer of income, sales and corporate taxes – which means that traditionally it has been  more stable than programs that must go to the General Fund each year for support. In tight economic times, the state government entities that do not rely on the General Fund tend to fare the best; those that do tend to get hit the hardest, absent legal protections for their revenue stream.

But as times get tougher, fewer people may be able to make restitution payments, or local governments may have reduced the staffs that process the collections. The Achilles heel of CalVCP, although a state program, is that it relies on local governments to collect the funds.

“We find that the issue of collection varies greatly from court to court,” Nauman said.

“Those revenue sources are declining, and that causes us a great deal of concern. If we can’t control the revenue and we and we aren’t going to the Legislature asking for money, we have to live within our means. We’ve got an upside-down situation, with revenues going down and demand going up.”

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