BEND, OR -- When President Obama signed the new federal budget Monday, it included a big hit to the Victims of Crime Act – or “VOCA” – fund. Janet Huerta, Executive Director of Bend-based Saving Grace, is frustrated with how Congress negotiated 1.5 billion dollars out of the fund that she says wasn’t theirs to take. "Last week what they did in this budget, they said ‘look, we’ve got this money sitting there, we don’t care that it’s not taxpayer money. We’re the Congress; we can do whatever we want. We’re just going to rescind and permanently cancel $1.5 billion so that we can allocate that to whatever we need.’ I mean, essentially, they’re breaking their own law because the statute reads, ‘the funds deposited should remain in the fund.’"
The VOCA account was created by Congress in 1984 and is funded by fines paid by perpetrators of crimes. Huerta explains: "They’ve said ‘look, we need an appropriate form of justice here.’ It’s an appropriate form of justice, if you’ve committed a crime against another person, that we fine you, and we’re going to put that in the bank. So, it’s not taxpayer money. I mean, it’s interest, but basically it’s an appropriate form of justice for you to pay in this way for your crime."
Saving Grace isn't the only local agency relying on the VOCA fund. Huerta tells KBND News, "A District Attorney’s office and their victims assistance program they use this funding; KIDS Center uses this funding; parents of murdered children use this funding; and there are other domestic violence programs around the state of Oregon that use this funding as well as other places. So, for organizations that are really dependent on it, those victims in those areas that get served by those organizations, they’re really going to be hurt."
She says the federal team
that manages how the fund is allocated just began to loosen the purse strings in the last year, allowing Saving Grace to bring on more victims' advocates. But now, those positions are at risk. "One of the things for us is, to put it in very real terms, imagine a situation that, this year it’s wonderful because we have three more people who are dedicated to being able to help victims of sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, child abuse, etc. Then we, all of a sudden, have to not provide those services or reduce the numbers of those services and go back to where we were in 2014." Huerta is hopeful they will be able to find other funding sources to keep those positions. Although, she worries smaller organizations may not have other options.