Most states' requirement that crime victims pay upfront for funerals, medical care and other costs of their victimization before getting reimbursed by state compensation programs leaves people living on the edge of financial disaster and further vulnerable to more crime, the Associated Press reports. The reimbursement rules further widen holes in the victim-compensation system that places restrictions on payments that exclude many victims, that erect formidable bureaucratic hurdles in applying for aid, and that rely on shaky funding mechanisms that leave the programs vulnerable to shortages and the changing priorities of lawmakers. Well-intentioned prison and criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing incarceration have caused shortfalls in some states that rely heavily on court or prison fines and fees for funding. Some programs do offer to directly pay funeral homes or medical providers. But for victims in places that don’t, the expense can mean not being able to pay rent or having to decline services like counseling because the grocery bill is more pressing. “So many families often can’t rely solely on that reimbursement model. … Those funds take months to arrive to families,” said Aswad Thomas, vice president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit working to reform victim compensation and other aspects of the criminal justice system.
Programs also require victims to exhaust other payment options first, like insurance, lawsuit awards or even crowdfunding. If a family member or friend starts a GoFundMe drive, it could cause some programs to reduce an award or claw back already granted money. While some states report claims are processed within days, others take months or even years. The average processing time in 2022 was three months, according to federal data collected from states. Many state victim compensation programs haven’t increased the overall award limits in decades. In three states, the most recent change lowered the caps. While states lagged in raising overall caps, almost all have increased the maximum amount they can award for funeral and burial expenses in recent decades. More than 30 programs increased awards for funerals since 2010. Many states rely heavily on matching dollars they get from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime. But even its Crime Victims Fund depends on fluctuating criminal fines, penalties, forfeited bail and other special assessments, which has also meant financial uncertainty. Elizabeth Ruebman, a New Jersey-based victims advocate and former adviser on compensation to the state attorney general, said compensation programs currently are not designed for emergency needs. “It’s slow, it’s bureaucratic. We’re talking about people who have a crisis right now,” she said.