A state trust fund used to compensate crime victims is struggling to stay solvent, prompting a proposal last week by Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office that would significantly reduce the amount of money victims can claim.
The proposal means that certain crime victims who want financial aid for out-of-pocket expenses like medical bills, lost wages or mental health counseling, will hit a lower cap on reimbursements from the fund.
“In order to keep this essential fund solvent and continue to pay out claims to victims, a temporary rule was necessary,” said Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Moody’s office.
To get reimbursement from this fund, called the Crimes Compensation Trust Fund, victims first must exhaust all other resources, such as insurance, workers’ compensation benefits and offender restitution.
The proposed change, which is not expected to require legislative approval, was made public last week through the administrative rule-making process. It will temporarily target nearly all categories of victims’ compensation.
In some cases, the maximum benefit amounts victims can receive will be reduced by 50 percent, such as reimbursements for victims who suffered a “catastrophic disability,” people who sustained wage losses or minors who have had to pay for mental health treatment.
Not all benefits will be impacted, though. Compensation caps for funeral costs, property losses, sexual-battery forensic examinations and emergency-responder death benefits will remain intact.
“Attorney General Moody is committed to helping victims recover, and she is taking action to ensure victims of crimes, including sexual assault survivors, continue to receive compensation,” Schenone said. “As soon as the attorney general took office, she recognized this issue and directed her staff to meet with judges, clerks of courts and prosecutors to address to decreased funding.”
One main reason for the trust fund running out of money, according to Moody’s office, is fewer dollars coming in from judicial circuits across the state during the past decade. Officials say that is a problem because the trust fund’s lone source of revenue comes from $50 fees criminal defendants pay at the time of sentencing.
If a defendant is ordered to pay restitution for a crime, the $50 fee must be included in the final judgment amount, state law says. Once paid, $49 goes to the trust fund and $1 goes to the clerk of the court.
During the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the fees paid by criminal defendants contributed $15.2 million to the trust fund, down from $16.3 million in 2016-2017 and $17.5 million in 2015-2016, according to the latest available numbers.
Meanwhile, the number of crime victims claiming money from the trust fund ticked up in that same period. In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the amount distributed to victims totaled $15.1 million, an increase of $1 million over 2016-2017 and nearly $500,000 over 2015-2016, officials said.
In 2008, the Legislature swept $10 million from the available funds to victims, according to Moody’s office, a move that has contributed to the diminished pot of money.
That’s the only time lawmakers have dipped into the fund, according to Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley.
Bradley, a former prosecutor, said Monday was the first time he heard that the trust fund is struggling to stay solvent. The Senate budget chief said nobody from Moody’s office contacted him about the problem during the 2019 legislative session, which ended in May.
“This is a very serious issue that I would like to address,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.
–Ana Ceballos, News Service of Florida