Lately it seems there is a never-ending stream of stories in the media about victims of terrible crimes, such as the three women and one of the women’s daughter who were recently rescued from a home in Cleveland, Ohio, after being kidnapped and held as prisoners for a decade. Some of them were also allegedly raped repeatedly. But for victims of such crime around the country, a series of recent budget cuts—including the reckless automatic across-the-board cuts known as sequestration—are a serious threat to their recovery and ability to seek justice.
When law enforcement responds to crimes, it relies on critical federally funded programs, as well as an invaluable network of service providers who can support victims in crisis. These service providers are a vital component of our justice system, giving victims the mental, physical, and emotional support they need to get back on their feet and the resources to seek their own justice.
Congress recently sprang into action to fix inconveniences for air travelers caused by automatic spending cuts, but victims of crime are left wondering where they fit into Congress’s priorities. The automatic cuts under sequestration are only the latest in a terrible trend of cuts to law-enforcement and victims services. Sequestration and related cuts in fiscal year 2013 alone will reduce or cut services to more than 955,000 victims. Automatic cuts are also threatening the U.S. Army’s ability to hire 829 military and civilian sexual-assault response coordinators as a result of an epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military.
Here are three things you need to know about how Congress is continuing to shortchange law enforcement and victims of crime through reckless deficit reduction and automatic cuts.
Cutting services for victims of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, adult sexual assault, and other crimes
Due to sequestration, 337,000 victims of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, adult sexual assault, and other crimes will lose critical support and services they receive through the Crime Victims Fund to help them recover from the heinous crimes committed against them.
Every year, the Crime Victims Fund—established under the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA—provides millions of crime victims in communities across the country with vital services in times of crisis. VOCA funds provide sexual-assault services, support for crisis intervention, assistance with the criminal-justice process, counseling, investigation and prosecution of child and elder abuse, and more. It also provides compensation to victims of crime.
Federal criminal offenders pay into the VOCA Crime Victims Fund through fines and penalties levied against them, meaning that it is budget neutral, doesn’t cost taxpayers anything, and doesn’t add to the national debt or deficit. But even a funding stream such as the one VOCA provides hasn’t escaped Congress’s reckless budget cutting: Sequestration is expected to reduce VOCA victims-service-assistance grants to states by $37.2 million, resulting in the more than 377,000 victims losing access to these services in FY 2013 alone. These grants fund services for victims of child sexual abuse (38,767 fewer served), domestic violence (178,894 fewer served), and adult sexual assault (21,363 fewer served). And the list goes on.
But it doesn’t end there. Due to the irresponsible budget-cutting environment, Congress this year asked the Department of Justice, which administers these funds, to cut management and administrative expenses from the VOCA fund for the second year in a row, compounding the cuts to victims services already set to take place under sequestration. Last year was the first year Congress had ever instructed the department to cut the fund for this purpose. This cut to VOCA funding is expected to reduce the number of victims served by nearly 578,000 on top of the sequester reductions, resulting in an estimated total of 955,843 fewer victims served in FY 2013.
Congress finally passed the Violence Against Women Act and then cut its funding
Countless victims of domestic violence and sexual assault waited and waited as Congress dragged its feet for nearly two and a half years to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, which provides for services and law enforcement for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Congress finally reauthorized the landmark law this year, but just as the victims thought they had finally scored a victory, sequestration slashed funding for the programs authorized under this vital law.
VAWA and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, or FVPSA, provide two of the most reliable sources of funding for domestic violence and sexual assault. At least 106,000 fewer victims are expected to receive services through these sources due to sequestration. And these cuts come at a time when a recent survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence reports that 88 percent of state domestic-violence coalitions reported an increase in demand for services and 69 percent of these coalitions reported funding decreases.
Agencies and facilities across the country serving these women are grappling with how to handle the budget cuts. Most find themselves choosing between cutting services or staff, or closing down altogether. A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 56 percent of 700 responding agencies reported that the poor economy is driving an increase in domestic violence, up from 40 percent in a similar 2010 survey.
Early estimations of the effect of sequestration are now becoming reality. In the military, which has been plagued by rising and epidemic levels of sexual assault among its ranks, the U.S. Army has reported that sequestration may hinder its ability to hire 829 military and civilian sexual-assault response coordinators. In Louisiana, an organization that provides 11 specially trained nurses who travel the area to collect DNA evidence from rape victims at hospitals may have to close its doors due to sequestration-related funding shortages. And the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association may have to eliminate sexual-assault-prevention staff from its ranks due to a lack of funds. The combined impact of sequestration on VAWA, FVPSA, and VOCA alone is crippling the critical support system upon which victims of domestic violence and sexual assault rely.
Federal funding cuts to law-enforcement programming may be virtually unfunded by 2021
These devastating cuts to victims services come on the heels of two years of drastic and unprecedented cuts to federal public-safety programming. Programs such as the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, or Byrne JAG, and the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, hiring grants are some of the vital federal sources of funding that state and local law agencies rely on for law enforcement, prosecution, crime prevention, education, corrections, and victims assistance.
A recent survey of 714 organizations, mostly local and state law-enforcement agencies, done by the National Criminal Justice Association and the Vera Institute of Justice found that over the past two years alone, federal support for criminal-justice assistance-grant programs has decreased by 43 percent. Left unchanged, the cuts mandated through sequestration could leave these vital federal programs virtually unfunded by 2021. These federal programs provide substantial funding for components of the criminal-justice system, including the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which saw its funding cut by 75 percent in FY 2012, and juvenile-justice and delinquency-prevention programs, which were cut by more than 50 percent in FY 2012.
The real effects of these cuts are emerging. One respondent to the National Criminal Justice Association and the Vera Institute of Justice survey from Ohio, for example, said that, “If projected cuts in government funding proceed, we anticipate that our court advocacy program will be greatly curtailed, if not virtually eliminated. That means we will not be able to offer hands-on assistance in accompanying victims to court proceedings and in assisting clients obtain protection orders.”
A law-enforcement respondent from Kentucky said that personnel and equipment needs were cut in half in FY 2012 due to funding cuts. “It’s hard to estimate the devastation these cuts will make to an already horrible condition,” said the respondent.
Cutbacks in funding to law-enforcement programming are on a dangerous trajectory. Through funding cuts and sequestration, Congress is asking law-enforcement agencies across the country to choose between a terrible set of options, none of which provide any comfort to victims of crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence. These cutbacks are already hindering the ability of local criminal-justice systems to respond to crimes and provide support to victims.
Responding effectively and responsibly to crime requires an entire system of justice—one that provides adequate resources to law enforcement and victims-service agencies so that they can respond in times of crisis and help victims get back on their feet and seek justice. Unfortunately, there is nothing effective, responsible, or adequate about how Congress is treating victims of crime today. The current reckless budget-cutting environment threatens this entire system due to the immediate effects of sequestration and the further troubling trend of declining public-safety and victims-service funding.
Before boarding planes to go home on recess last month, Congress rushed to fix sequestration-related inconveniences for air travelers, but victims of crime and the law enforcement and other agencies that serve them remain dangerously shortchanged. Victims of crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence have nowhere else to turn, and they deserve to be a priority every bit as much as air travelers do.
Erik Stegman is the Manager of the Half in Ten Education Fund at the Center for American Progress.