Pamela White stared at the silver tree with twinkling lights as she cleaned up her son’s apartment, wondering how she went from celebrating Christmas to thinking about headstones and cemeteries in a matter of days.
Her son, Dararius Evans, was an army reservist and veteran who had survived a deployment to Iraq. A few days after Christmas 2019, the 28-year-old was killed in a shooting outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The shooter was sentenced to life in prison last year.
White and her family, who live outside of New Orleans, turned to Louisiana’s victim compensation agency for help paying for the unexpected funeral. She ran into administrative hurdles, a denial blaming her son for his own death, a lengthy appeal—all while paying in advance via a personal loan that accrued interest while she waited.
Thousands of crime victims each year face the difficult financial realities of state compensation programs billed as safety nets to offset costs such as funerals, medical care, relocation and other needs. Many programs require victims to pay those fees first and use all means of payment before reimbursing them, often at rates that do not fully cover the costs.
The programs also struggle with often unstable funding mechanisms that leave their budgets vulnerable to deficits and the changing priorities of legislators. Well-intentioned prison and criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing incarceration have led to deficits in some states that rely heavily on judicial or prison fines and funding fees.
Proponents say most states’ requirement for victims to pay upfront could leave out people who are on the brink of financial disaster and often most vulnerable to a crime.
“So many families often cannot rely on that repayment model alone. … It takes months for the money to reach families,” said Aswad Thomas, vice president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit organization that works to reform victim compensation and other aspects of the criminal justice system.
Some programs offer to pay funeral homes or medical providers directly. But for victims in places that don’t, the cost could mean they can’t pay rent or have to refuse services like counseling because the grocery bill is more pressing.
Programs also require victims to exhaust other payment options first, such as insurance, court awards, or even crowdfunding. If a family member or friend initiates a GoFundMe campaign, some programs may reduce an award or reclaim funds already awarded.
Waiting for help also causes financial strain. While some states report that claims are processed within days, in others it takes months or even years. The average processing time in 2022 was three months, according to federal data collected from states.
Andrew LeFevre, the executive director of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, which oversees victim compensation and other state programs, said more stable sources of funding would mean faster payments and more victims could access assistance.
About a dozen states get most or all of their funding from recurring state budget dollars. But many states have placed the responsibility for paying the programs on people in the criminal justice system — court fines, collecting a percentage of inmates’ wages, or prison commissioners’ fees.
These cash flows can fluctuate strongly. Temporary court closures early in the pandemic, sentencing reforms and changes in the way some prosecutors charge felonies have all led to fewer dollars for many state programs.
LeFevre has been talking to Arizona lawmakers for years about the need for stable funding. Over the past decade, revenues fell 38% in the state’s Criminal Justice Enhancement Fund, collected largely through surcharges on criminal and civil penalties, which pays for compensation and other programs.
Last year, Arizona legislators backed the program with $10 million in one-time U.S. Rescue Plan money and supplemented the budget with a recurring $2 million in general funds. But even that is significantly less than the roughly $14 million LeFevre estimates annually the program needs to serve all victims in the state without resorting to criminal justice resources.
“We didn’t announce the program ourselves (to the victims),” LeFevre said. “Because the last thing we wanted was for twice as many victims to come forward and not be able to help them.”
Hawaii’s program has relied primarily on fines and fees since 1998. But chronic shortages forced the program to close in 2022. An influx of general funds from the legislature to pay staff “saved” the program, according to an annual report.
A handful of state legislators have used one-off blanket cash injections to close budget gaps created by the downstream effects of criminal justice reform.
California’s restitution fund is down about 27% between fiscal year 2021 and 2022. State lawmakers have increased General Fund dollars to close the gap and for the next fiscal year. But the program still relies in part on the volatile restitution fund, which proponents say legislators are hesitant to expand the program or remove hurdles.
Many states rely heavily on matching dollars they get from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime. But even the Crime Victims Fund relies on fluctuating criminal fines, sentences, forfeited bail and other special charges, which also brought financial uncertainty.
Less money went to the federal fund after a shift in legal strategy led to more delayed federal prosecutions, mostly in white-collar crime cases, meaning those cases don’t go to trial if fines or other conditions are met. Congress addressed that in 2021 by redirecting fines from those pre-prosecution agreements to the fund. Lawmakers also increased the percentage of matching funds states receive annually.
In Louisiana, victims who were eligible for compensation in the past due to financial shortfalls had to wait more than a year for help. The state began clearing the backlog in 2017 by transferring money saved from lower incarceration costs due to prison reform, which also increased the federal fee.
White’s application filed in 2020 was not part of the backlog, but her case still took nearly two years to settle. Every Christmas she put up the silver tree from Dararius’ apartment. And she waited.
At her appeals hearing, White pleaded with the board, saying that even if a fight had resulted in her son’s murder, he was still a person who didn’t deserve to die.
“I got them thinking. That was a life taken — that wasn’t an animal,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they had a fight. It doesn’t matter if they got into a fistfight. … It does not justify a person losing their life.
The board reversed its decision and gave White $5,000 – the most offered for funeral assistance at the time. But the loan White took out was $6,000 and accrued interest when she made the monthly payments.
White was able to make it through those payments, but she knows a lot of people can’t.
Elizabeth Ruebman, a New Jersey-based victim advocate and former attorney general’s compensation consultant, said compensation programs are not currently designed for emergencies.
“It’s slow, it’s bureaucratic. We are talking about people who are in crisis right now,” she said.
Many states offer emergency awards to help victims in the immediate aftermath of a crime, but proponents say those awards are flawed. They are often restrictive, capped at $500, and deducted from any subsequent rewards. About a dozen states do not offer emergency awards at all.
The AP found that maximum rewards program offerings ranged from $10,000 to $190,000 in individual states. Many programs haven’t raised those amounts in decades: North Dakota, Montana, and Rhode Island last raised their ceilings in the 1970s.
Programs have lagged less behind raising limits on individual expenses such as funerals. But many states don’t provide enough money to cover the true cost of burying a loved one. The National Funeral Directors Association estimated the median cost of a family vault burial to be more than $9,400 by 2021. Only a dozen states offer enough to cover that median cost.
Over the years, some states have increased the amount available for medical bills for people who sustain catastrophic injuries as a result of a crime. But in some states, even those catastrophic amounts only add up to an additional $10,000, which doesn’t cover the lifetime costs of injuries, such as loss of the ability to walk.
The New York program is unique in that it has no cap on medical expenses. That includes lifelong assistance with replacement prosthetics, extensive physical therapy, or equipment that may not always be covered by medical insurance. Some payouts have reached millions of dollars, administrators said.
Kingsley Joseph was 20 years old and living in New York City when he was shot in the back in 2007 and left paralyzed from the waist down. His college career was put on hold. He could not continue to live with his parents in their apartment. He was unable to keep his job as a disaster cop at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Joseph’s best option was a nursing home where many of the other patients were decades his senior. An employee there told Joseph about New York’s victim compensation program.
Joseph applied and was approved for lost wages – money that helped him get an accessible apartment. The program has paid for medical equipment, such as a therapy bike that helps maintain leg muscles.
New York’s program also includes sometimes overlooked expenses, such as training for a new career after a catastrophic injury. Joseph received an occupational therapy award that helped him earn his medical physics degree.
The 36-year-old now works in cancer care.
“They invested in me as a person,” he said. “And I’m incredibly grateful for that.”
Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey. Lauer reported from Philadelphia.
This is the third in an occasional series from Associated Press examining crime victim compensation programs. Send confidential tips to ap.org/tips. The Associated Press receives support from the General Welfare Foundation for reporting on criminal law. The AP is solely responsible for all content.