By Josh Mitchell
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE, Md. — Crime victims in Maryland might have reduced access to services such as counseling and shelter because of cutbacks in federal aid.
For the second straight year, money distributed to the states from the Justice Department's Crime Victims Fund will decline. As part of the recently passed omnibus spending bill, Congress capped disbursements from the fund at $590 million — $35 million less than was spent the year before.
Maryland is expected to receive slightly more than $6 million for victim-assistance programs in the 12-month period that began in October, a drop of 17 percent from a peak of nearly $7.4 million two years prior.
In Maryland, the money goes to more than 100 nonprofits and state and local government agencies that work with crime victims, providing legal advice, shelter and even a counselor's hand to hold in court. Recipients include House of Ruth Maryland and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
Victims advocates in the state said they do not expect the drop in federal aid to have an immediate impact, since the grants are spread out over several years. But they said that programs might eventually be forced to cut back on staff and services, especially if federal reductions continue, as some predict.
"Whereas a program might be able to serve 100 people, they may now be able to serve 70 people or 80 people" when the cutbacks are felt, said Rakhsha Hakimzadeh, director of the Office of Victim Services in the state Department of Human Resources, which distributes the federal victim-assistance funds.
Mary McGeady, director of finance and administration for House of Ruth, said nonprofits could not easily make up a shortfall. "There's so many demands on donors to contribute to so many very worthy causes," she said. "There's simply no pot of money to go to when something disappears like this."
At House of Ruth, the federal grant goes directly to services for domestic violence victims, such as a hot line and legal advice, she said. The annual grant of about $300,000 amounts to about 5 percent of the nonprofit organization's operating budget.
Established as part of the Victims of Crime Act of 1984, the federal fund is drawn from fees and fines paid by those convicted of federal crimes. In addition to victim assistance, the money pays for such things as staff at U.S. attorney's offices, programs under the Children's Justice Act and programs that compensate victims for expenses resulting from crimes.
No taxpayer dollars go into the fund, which stands at about $1.7 billion, said Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican. Congress lowered outlays in an effort to reduce overall federal spending and thus show fiscal discipline. But, he said, the move was fruitless because there are no taxpayer savings.
"It's unfortunate, because it's not the government's money," Poe said. "The money belongs to victims, because criminals pay into the fund."
He said he and other lawmakers are working on bills to allow an additional $60 million from the fund to be disbursed this year.
In the meantime, state officials are preparing for a reduction. "I just see the allocation going down," said Hakimzadeh. "If that's the case, we're going to be able to fund only priority areas," hindering her office's ability to aid new providers of victims' services.
Helping crime victims
For the 12-month period that began Oct. 1, 2007, the top five recipients of federal victim-assistance grants distributed by the Maryland Office of Victim Services were:
Montgomery County Health and Human Services, victim assistance and sexual assault program, $327,517.
Montgomery County Health and Human Services, child welfare program, $300,000.
House of Ruth in Baltimore, $299,583.
Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, $298,000.
Prince George's County Office of Victim Services, family crisis center, $234,666.
Copyright 2008 The Baltimore Sun
U.S. cuts funding for crime victims