Crime Pays

Fines support a fund for crime victims, but is it helping those who need it most?

TEXAS MAY BE TOUGH on criminals, but it is also sympathetic toward crime victims—or at least it tries to be. In 1979 the Legislature created the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, which reimburses violent-crime victims and their families for such expenses as hospital stays, counseling, and funeral costs. Financed largely by misdemeanor and felony fines, the fund pays claims up to $50,000, though catastrophic cases can receive up to $100,000. Since 1991—when the attorney general’s office began handling the fund’s payments—it has paid out almost $200 million in awards. So why are some crime victims dissatisified?

The answer is, more money is in the bank. In fact, by August 1998, the fund had grown to $181.7 million—more than nine times what it was four years earlier. That belt-busting figure has led some to wonder if individuals who need assistance are going without. “It’s like they’re collecting it, but they don’t want to give it to the people who really need it,” says Carol Stites, whose nineteen-year-old daughter was murdered in Bastrop in 1996. Stites says she would have liked for the fund to provide free counseling because she couldn’t afford to pay up front. As she points out, not all claims are approved. “The unknown kept me from going,” she says. “I sort of swallow it and go on.”

Victims aren’t the only ones who need resources. State law requires law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices to provide crime-victim liaisons and victim-assistance coordinators, respectively, but the Legislature didn’t give them any money to provide training or hire additional staff. Thus liaisons and coordinators are often overworked or lack the resources to assist crime victims. Mary Ann Witter, whose son was murdered in Johnson City in 1995, felt that her coordinator “wasn’t terribly interested” in keeping her updated about the trial. “I didn’t know when the grand jury met until I read it in the newspaper,” she said.

Karen Kalergis, the public information officer for the Crime Victims’ Compensation Division, understands these concerns, yet complaints about her agency’s not spending the money anger her. “It’s a gross inaccuracy to say we’re sitting on this money and don’t know what to do with it,” she says. Until recently, Kalergis explains, the Legislature only allowed the money to be spent on compensation claims and nothing else. “Nobody had the authority to spend that money,” she says.

But that is beginning to change. In 1997 the Legislature passed a bill that frees up some of the funds. Now state agencies can apply for money to pay for victim-service programs. Two such programs got approved: the Department of Human Services received $3.6 million over two years to provide services to victims of family violence, and the AG’s office received $1 million to provide legal representation for abused and neglected children in court. That is good news for those who need assistance, and with a new legislative session upon us, Kalergis predicts that 1999 will be “another watershed year,” with more of the money going to crime victims. Says Kalergis: “For the first time, we have an opportunity to put state money behind the mandate for victims’ rights.”

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