The descriptions of violent crime are terse, crammed into just a few lines on the second page of a standardized application.
The mother of a 23-year-old man shot to death inside an auto upholstery business writes: “Some guys walked up to him and shot him several times.” A wife notes that her husband is paralyzed after he was shot in the neck by two burglars in their Gonzales home. An Australian tourist caught in a crossfire on Bourbon Street in 2014, struck in the face, details a list of injuries: “fractured jaw, missing bone from bottom jaw, 10+ missing teeth, tongue ripped.”
Louisiana’s Crime Victims Reparations Board receives hundreds of such applications each year, pleas from victims of violent crimes and their family members for help with expenses ranging from counseling and medical bills to lost wages and funerals.
During the past two years, though, the waiting time to receive money began to grow, leaving many victims of violent crime and their families waiting for more than a year for payouts.
The relatively small fund relies almost entirely on court fees and pays only expenses not covered by insurance, legal settlements or other means.
“We’re way behind on paying claims,” said Bob Wertz, law enforcement training manager for the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees the fund.
The Crime Victims Reparations Board is now running “about 11 to 12 months behind in general” on paying claims, Wertz said, up from a previous average of about 30 to 90 days on a backlog that started to grow roughly 15 months ago. Some victims have been able to receive compensation more quickly, though, because the board prioritized paying certain expenses, including mental health counseling and lost wages.
Law Enforcement Commission staff said the culprit for the growing wait was largely state budget cuts. In recent years, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and the Legislature have reduced the commission’s general fund appropriations, which has meant programs like the crime victim fund — paid for by dedicated fees — have had to cover more of the commission’s administrative costs.
Gregory Dupuis, a spokesman for the Division of Administration, said the commission should look for ways to reduce those administrative costs. He also said the Jindal administration, which will be leaving office shortly, supports the fund and is committed to ensuring approved claims are paid.
‘If it comes, it comes’
When Camela Davis’ 23-year-old son, Kwemon, was gunned down on Spanish Town Road in Baton Rouge in March, the grieving mother turned to relatives to pull together enough money to pay for the funeral. Kwemon’s godmother, Cynthia Searcy, also put together the crime victims application to help with burial expenses.
The board quickly delivered a $500 emergency award, but more than eight months later, the claim for reimbursement — the board offers up to $5,000 for funeral expenses — has yet to be considered. Searcy said that numerous family members chipped in to pay for the funeral. Although a balance of about $500 remains with the funeral home, Searcy said she’s not counting on any more help.
“If it comes, it comes,” she said. “We’re a close-knit family. We raised the money in a couple of days.”
For other families and victims without extensive networks of relatives to turn to, though, the financial fallout in the wake of a violent crime can be much tougher, Davis said. “When you really have a family that’s close and love each other, they will come through for each other,” she said. “If you don’t have a family like that, it’s definitely hard.”
Tamara Jackson, executive director of the New Orleans crime victims’ advocacy group Silence Is Violence, said she’s working with numerous crime victims in Orleans and Jefferson parishes who have been ruled eligible for compensation but haven’t yet gotten any money.
In the past, Jackson said, Silence Is Violence distributed money to crime victims who don’t qualify for help from the fund, usually because of a previous and unrelated felony conviction. But because of the fund’s mounting backlog of claims, Jackson said, the nonprofit has started offering cash assistance even to those who do qualify — cutting its payouts dramatically in the process to help spread the money around.
“We had to cut back because of what’s going on with Crime Victims Reparations,” Jackson said. “Right now, we’re providing funding for those who do qualify because the board doesn’t have the funding.”
Some who suffered through long waits still have kind words for the program and the assistance it provides.
A florist preparing arrangements for Nicholas Brumfield’s funeral told his mother, Robin Smith, about the fund. Smith, a health care professional, said she sought help to cover the cost of a headstone. Her 23-year-old son was shot to death in May 2014 at the Greenwell Springs Road auto upholstery shop in Baton Rouge where he worked.
A reimbursement check for the headstone arrived recently, about 18 months after Brumfield’s slaying. In the meantime, Smith had taken out a loan to cover the cost of the marker for her son. Although she’s going to have to cover interest payments on the headstone, she has nothing but kind words for the crime victims fund.
“The program was awesome. It was able to help me,” said Smith, who said the fund’s staff listened to her when she was upset and needed to vent, as well as helping with counseling for family members. “I was totally unprepared (for the death). It did throw me into a serious financial bind.”
Hundreds of claims that have been deemed eligible for compensation have been waiting on payment for more than 18 months, according to fund documents. As of Nov. 22, they included 225 claims for medical expenses totaling more than $804,000, as well as nearly $348,000 in approved burial claims and $77,000 in claims for out-of-pocket expenses.
The growing backlog of unpaid claims coincided with climbing administrative costs charged to the small fund — something officials at the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement say were forced to do by cuts elsewhere in their budget.
James Franklin, the commission’s deputy director, said that like other state agencies, his small office has seen cuts in state general fund dollars. Although reduced staffing and other savings have helped offset some of the cuts, Franklin said other expenses beyond the agency’s control rose.
“All those costs don’t go away,” he said. “Some of them did, but they didn’t all go away.”
As payouts from the fund dwindled over the past five years — from more than $2 million in 2010 to just over $1 million in the most recent fiscal year — the portion of the fund going toward administrative costs has ballooned. In fiscal year 2010-11, $371,000 of the court fees paid into the fund went to pay salaries and other operating expenses at the Commission on Law Enforcement. In the 2014-15 fiscal year, those expenses had grown to $652,495, or 60 percent of state collections that year.
Over that same period, total claims paid out of state funds dropped from an average of $1 million per year from 2010 to 2013 to just $515,000 in the 2014-15 fiscal year. During that period, the board also burned through much of its cash reserves. As a result, the board is now able to pay claims only as money is collected, Franklin said.
The fund, which was created by the Legislature in 1982, receives no tax revenue. Instead, the lion’s share of its funding comes from fees and court costs levied on criminal offenses, including at least $50 on each felony conviction and $7.50 on all misdemeanors and violations of municipal and parish ordinances, except traffic tickets. Those fees have brought in about $1.3 million per year for the fund, while federal grant money adds several hundred thousand dollars annually.
Wertz said some claims, including those for out-of-pocket expenses and mental health counseling, have been given priority, while other claims have been moved to the back of the line. Some are being paid out in installments.
A very low cap
A small handful of other states also have seen shortages in their reparations funds because of dips in the amount of fees paid at courts, said Jeffrey Dion, deputy executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C. Dion said the shortages raised questions about whether programs that help victims should rely solely on court fees and whether they bring in enough cash.
Dion said Louisiana’s crime victims fund already has a very low cap on awards when compared with other states. For most victims, Louisiana law limits total payouts to no more than $10,000, though victims who are completely disabled as a result of the crime can receive more. Only four other states cap payments at that low a level.
Eligibility requirements for the fund also are among the most stringent in the nation. To receive compensation, victims can’t be found to have contributed to their victimization and also can’t have had a felony conviction of any sort in the past five years. The guidelines established by the fund’s board also limit payouts to victims of violent crime — excluding victims of property crimes and other offenses — and the board has, in the past, excluded some undocumented immigrants from receiving benefits.
Keon Preston, a chaplain with the Stop the Violence nonprofit group in Baton Rouge, said the restrictions cut off vulnerable families from receiving much-needed assistance — including his own. After Preston’s 19-year-old younger brother, Calvin Smith, was shot to death outside a grocery store in January, his mother asked for help with burial expenses but was turned away because of Smith’s unrelated burglary conviction from 2012.
“Just because they had a criminal record doesn’t mean that, when they died, they were committing a crime,” Preston said.
Dion said excluding claimants for directly contributing to the crimes is standard across the country, but that considering unrelated, years-old convictions penalizes poor and minority populations in relatively high-crime areas.
Wertz and Franklin emphasize there may be some hope on the horizon. During the last legislative session, lawmakers approved a law that authorizes unclaimed gambling prizes to be used to compensate victims of sexual assaults.
With this extra money, the commission’s staff hopes the victims fund board can start clearing up the backlog in the coming months, although the unclaimed prize money had yet to be turned over by the end of November.
Because states get more federal grant money if they increase the local dollars spent on crime victims, that means Louisiana could also see additional federal assistance in the future.
“It should be a big shot in the arm for the program,” Franklin said.