The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., hosts both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

A bill that provides millions of dollars for services for crime victims passed the U.S. Senate unanimously Tuesday.

Once President Joe Biden signs the bill, it will restore millions of dollars to the Victims of Crime Act fund across the United States to nonprofits that help survivors of domestic violence and other violent crimes.

For the past several years the funds to pay for these programs had been declining, said Kathleen Lockwood, policy director for the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“It will take time to see the financial impacts of this fix. Unless additional funds are added to the Crime Victims Fund, it is still possible that there will be additional VOCA cuts or VOCA funding maintained at low levels for the next year or longer,” Lockwood said.

People convicted of violent crimes pay into a fund to help crime victims. However, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys have also settled federal cases before trial with either settlement agreements or deferred, or nonprosecution, agreements.

Neither of those technically counts as a prosecution, so the fines and fees that result from pretrial settlements or deferments instead have gone to the general fund in the U.S. Treasury.

The bill redirects the fines and fees collected from these pretrial agreements back to the VOCA fund and increases the percentage of state programs funded by the federal government to 75% from 60%.

“While this seems like a simple technical fix, this is a huge help in building up the fund in the years to come,” Lockwood said. “For context, if this law had been in place at the beginning of 2021, there would have been an additional $500 million-plus in this fund by now.” 

The effects on North Carolina organizations

The Governor’s Crime Commission, which distributes the funds from the federal government, has not received guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice on the state’s allocation. 

All the while, police departments nationwide saw a significant increase in domestic violence calls and arrests during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, according to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

“It is highly unlikely that it will affect the 2021 funding allocation to North Carolina, therefore award recipients in the 2021 cycle should also not anticipate a change in the amount they are to receive,” said Diane Barber-Whitaker, interim director of the Governor’s Crime Commission, in an emailed statement to Carolina Public Press.

Last month, the commission sent letters to agencies that depend on grants paid by VOCA funds, said Deanne Gerdes, executive director of Rape Crisis of Cumberland County. 

Gerdes said the letter from the Governor’s Crime Commission said the agency would receive no money for domestic violence programs for the coming year.

Earlier this month the organization, which also helps domestic violence victims, posted on its Facebook page that the funding it receives from VOCA for domestic violence programs had been “completely eliminated.”

Gerdes said domestic violence victims have been “used as political pawns” in a battle that could have been avoided.

“This should have been dealt with months, if not years, ago,” Gerdes said Wednesday. “We all knew this was coming, and it didn’t get fixed in time.” 

Last year, Rape Crisis of Cumberland County received $128,000 in VOCA funds, she said. 

“Do we have to reapply for the funding we were told we’re not getting?” Gerdes asked. “What does that look like? Do we wait until next year and reapply?”

Gerdes said she was told that her nonprofit organization would get money from the American Rescue Plan Act, but that money is held up in the state’s budget process.

North Carolina’s share of ARPA funds is more than $5.7 billion. Of that amount, the state Senate’s budget version passed in June included $15 million for organizations that aid domestic violence and sexual assault victims, said Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for the office of state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

The state House continues to work on its budget, which is scheduled to be revealed in early August, according to the News and Observer.

Still, Gerdes said the future looks bleak, at least for this year.

“We’ve had hard conversations with our employees already,” she said. Two of them have been notified they will not have a job after Sept. 30, absent additional funds. 

“What money is going to be released when?” Gerdes asked.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.