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How much help should Louisiana crime victims get? State board looks at restrictions

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How much help should Louisiana crime victims get? State board looks at restrictions

Sep 27, 2022 | 12:12 pm ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
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How much help should Louisiana crime victims get? State board looks at restrictions
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Crime victim advocates and a state board are fighting over what crime victim expenses should qualify for financial support from the state. (Getty Images)

Crime victim advocates thought they had scored a big victory in June when Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a new law granting more flexibility and bigger awards out of Louisiana’s crime victims reparations fund. 

But members of the state board who oversee the money are uncomfortable with the changes and considering new regulations to limit their impact. They and their staff worry the fund could run out of money if nothing is done to control costs.

“The last thing we want to do is get to a point where we get in trouble financially,” said Jim Craft, executive director for the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, which operates the fund. Craft also sits on the 11-member Crime Victims Reparations Board that reviews each victim’s application for funding and decides who gets money. 

Advocates counter that new flexibility in the law makes the fund more useful for survivors. The state also hasn’t raised its cap on awards in decades. 

Louisiana spends less money – only $103 per reported crime – on its victim reparations program than almost every other state. Mississippi gives survivors over $250 per reported crime, and Texas doles out over $500 per reported crime, according to Katie Hunter Lowrey, a sexual assault survivor who runs Louisiana Survivors for Reform.

“If I had had access to these funds, it would have changed the course of my life and trauma,” she said last week at a meeting of the Crime Victims Reparations Board. “If the issue is money, we will ask [the Louisiana Legislature] for more money.” 

The spending is so low, advocates say, because crime victims are often not told about the fund. Even if they do know about it, the application process is rigid and onerous. Advocates help craft the new law, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Hilferty of New Orleans, to improve access to the money. 

Higher cap includes relocation, funeral limits

Under the statute approved in June, the state can now reimburse all victims up to $15,000 per person for crime-related expenses, when it previously maxed out at $10,000 for most individuals. Emergency grants can also be given out in $1,000 increments, up from $500.

Louisiana also added to the list of qualifying expenses for relief. Crime victims may now apply for financial assistance to help with relocation in addition to money for medical bills, counseling, lost income, funerals, child care and crime scene cleanup. 

Moving forward, victims will also not be required to report crimes to law enforcement in order to obtain financial assistance. Instead, they can now provide documentation from a health care professional, social worker or licensed counselor. 

For the most part, only sexual assault survivors have been able to tap into the funds without reporting to law enforcement, and that was just to cover the cost of a forensic medical exam, commonly known as a rape kit exam. 

Anxious about the changes associated with the spending, the Crime Victims Reparations Board staff has proposed regulations to place caps on certain types of reimbursements. They would limit reimbursements to $6,000 for relocation costs and $6500 for funerals within the new $15,000 maximum for most victims. 

This means a person looking to move after becoming a crime victim could still get $15,000 worth of costs covered, but the amount would have to cover relocation expenses and a  mix of bills for other services such as counseling or medical treatment. Staff said other states, including Florida and Mississippi, have drained their resources when they haven’t capped relocation expenses.

The current threshold for funeral reimbursement is $5,000, which board members and advocates agree is too low. But advocates said the proposed $6,500 cap still won’t cover the full cost of burial for most homicide victims.

Board members also raised serious concerns about having a mental health counselor or social worker vouch for a crime victim instead of a law enforcement officer. They said the practice will present a conflict of interest for mental health professionals who will financially benefit if the board agrees to cover the costs of victims’ counseling.

The board’s staff has proposed a regulation that would only allow crime victims of sexual violence, domestic violence, human trafficking and stalking to use a mental health professional to certify their victim status. For all other crimes, victims would still have to report incidents to law enforcement within 72 hours to access benefits. 

Advocates said this is not in keeping with the new law, which was written intentionally to allow any crime victim to access financial support without having to go to law enforcement first. 

Fund’s long-term stability in question

Some of the board’s concerns over the stability of the crime victim fund stem from their experiences a few years ago, when the state had to defer reimbursements to victims because there wasn’t enough money.

“We were three years behind paying claims when I came in 2016,” Craft said. 

The fund wasn’t lacking money because it had too many claims from crime victims. It was because former Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers used its funding for other needs.

At the time, Louisiana was in a budget crisis and Jindal – in an effort to avoid raising taxes – often “swept” the crime victims fund to help pay for higher education and health care programs that it would have been unpopular to cut.

The most recent annual report from the Crime Victims Reparations Board shows the fund should have produced a surplus over the years. Since its inception in 1982, the fund has brought in $72 million and only dispersed $58.9 million, leaving $13 million more in collections than awards, according to the board’s own documents.

In the 2020-2021 state budget cycle, the fund brought in $5.1 million and gave out $3.2 million in grants to crime victims, according to the board’s report. Over a third of the money – $1.3 million – went toward funeral expenses. 

The average award was relatively modest, just $1,120. Board members say they rarely award the maximum amount allowed. Over a third of the grants went to survivors of child sexual abuse. 

The fund is primarily supported through fines and fees collected with criminal convictions, criminal restitution and federal grants. The state is also currently redirecting some of the money it has saved through reducing its prison population to this fund. Louisiana also uses unclaimed gambling winnings to cover the cost of forensic medical exams. 

The board’s top staff member, Bob Wertz, said he is still concerned that the fund’s revenue sources could dry up over the next couple of years. It’s not clear how long the funding coming from the state’s prison population reduction will last. District attorneys are also steering more minor criminal cases through diversion programs that don’t result in convictions and lower the amount of fines and fees collected. 

Not everyone shares Wertz’s concerns over the fund’s solvency. 

The fund’s federal support is partially dependent on the amount of money the board gives out, said Amanda Tonkovich, the board’s chairman and an Edwards appointee. The more money the board spends, the more money the federal government will give Louisiana to cover its grants, she said.

“We already have the funds needed,” said Tonkovich, when testifying to lawmakers in support of the adding flexibility to the fund last spring.