Paying for crimes

Victims like Peggy Lopez are denied help by the diminishing “fund of last resort”

Peggy Lopez.

Peggy Lopez.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Peggy Lopez’s life seemed to come crashing down around her in June of 2000, first when someone shoved a gun into the back of her head during a robbery and then the next day, when she suffered an on-the-job injury she believes was triggered by the jangled nerves she felt while trying to deal with the crime.

Unable to work and facing mounting bills, this 58-year-old delivery truck driver from Sacramento turned to the state for help, pursuing both a worker’s compensation claim and assistance through the Victims Compensation Program. Checks from both funds started rolling in a few weeks later, and she was able to pay her bills, get the help she needed and get back on her feet.

But later, Lopez got something in the mail she didn’t expect: a bill for $8,000, dubbing the entire amount she has received from the VCP an “overpayment,” alleging that she had been improperly siphoning money out of the fund. Now she feels betrayed, and she has been fighting what she perceives as a gross injustice, so far unsuccessfully.

She also has gotten a lesson in how the multi-million-dollar Victims Compensation Fund works … and its limitations.

“The Victims Compensation Program is designed to be the payer of last resort,” said program spokeswoman Fran Clader. “It is for people who have no insurance program to assist crime victims so that they don’t become financially devastated.”

When crime victims don’t have the resources or private insurance to recover from a crime, the program steps in to cover medical expenses, counseling, rehabilitation, lost wages, crime-scene cleanup costs or whatever is needed.

The VCP assists the victim for a maximum of $70,000, but case-by-case assessments have the small probability of increasing the amount. Some crime victims who suffer direct losses from theft and other crimes can get court-ordered payments directly from the perpetrator, but this fund can be accessed by anyone victimized by crime who meets the criteria.

The restitution fund (the primary source of funding for the VCP) receives its money from restitution fines imposed by judges. Counties and the state collect these financial obligations separately from each other, but all of the money eventually ends up in the restitution fund.

There is a limited amount in the fund, and the restitution fine is determined upon the nature of the crime: A misdemeanor collects anywhere from $100 to $1,000 whereas a felony will accrue anywhere from $200 to $10,000.

When an inmate becomes incarcerated, he or she will activate a trust account that is the equivalent of inmate banking; any finances received or fiscal resources will go into this account while incarcerated, and 20 percent is taken out in order to pay for their restitution fine.

The system takes in well more than $100 million a year that’s available to crime victims. For people like 28-year-old Tammy Rose of Stockton, the fund is what has allowed her to begin healing her wounds, both physical and emotional.

Five years ago, Rose was leaving for work in the wee hours of the morning out her back door when she was attacked from behind. Savagely beaten and raped in her own backyard, she was found semi-conscious by her family at 4 a.m.

After driving to the hospital and getting the emergency help she needed, the family learned about the Victims Compensation Program. The entire family received counseling for one year, and Rose was covered for receiving mental therapy as well as medications for two years.

Rose said the program truly saved her, but even those with lesser needs have benefited from the program. In the wake of last year’s 9/11 terrorist attacks, Clader said one recipient of funding was someone who lost his mother in the attacks and got counseling to deal with the loss. “He wouldn’t have even thought about mental health counseling if it wasn’t for this program.”

Yet the fund has serious limits, and there has been a steep increase in funding requests, partly as a result of VCP outreach efforts, which got a renewed push following the 9/11 attacks. In the last four years, applications have increased 77 percent to 63,247 requests for help, and payouts are up more than 83 percent.

At the same time, the longtime trend of steadily increasing revenues has reversed course this year, with income from inmates and parolees declining for the first time. Such revenues are down by more than $4 million to about $106 million. With an extra $54 million coming in from federal sources, the fund won’t have a problem covering an expected $133 million in payouts, but the reversal of fortunes troubles some.

One factor in the funding decrease ironically relates to the tough-on-crime policies enacted in the name of crime victims. In recent years, the average lengths of jail and prison sentences have been getting longer. Paroles have been tougher to get, and, for those who do get out, tougher parole standards have caused more ex-cons to be taken off the street and sent back to prison.

These tough-on-crime trends create a simple mathematic equation that hurts the fund. Inmates usually make less than a dollar an hour working behind bars, 20 percent of which is taken out for victim compensation. That same 20 percent adds up far faster when someone is out of jail and making at least minimum wage.

Sandy Minifee, who administers the Victims Compensation Program for the California Department of Corrections, said many perpetrators would never make enough money to fully pay their debts. “Many inmates or parolees will be paying off their restitution order until they die,” she said.

This brings us back to Peggy Lopez, who has been asked to repay what she received from the VCP, partly because the VCP discovered she also was getting worker’s compensation payments and partly because it concluded that her injuries weren’t related directly to the crime.

Lopez believes the experience of having a gun pointed at her during the robbery was what triggered an accident the next day when a load of boxes in her truck fell on her.

“Sometimes you are so shocked everything in you is quiet. Everything you do is in a fog, sort of a mindless place of shock,” she said.

With funding tight at the VCP, this “fund of last resort” can only cover a narrow realm of victims’ needs. Clader said changes in the scope of the program would have to be made through the Legislature, and some victims’ rights groups say they plan to do exactly that next year and will urge officials to increase restitution levels and broaden the fund’s mandate.

But it was a different type of solution that led Lopez to contact SN&R, after she’d read the August 8 cover story “No Parole for You,” which detailed how more paroles are being denied by the state than ever before, largely at the behest of Governor Gray Davis.

“The ‘wrongdoers’ need to come out of prison when parole is indicated. These women and men, rather than consuming taxpayers’ hard-earned money, should be out of jail, working, paying taxes and paying restitution to the restitution fund to cover the needs of the victims of crime in the state of California,” she wrote. “By enforcing an ‘in a pine box’ parole policy, Governor Davis violates both the perpetrators and the victims of crime in the state of California.”