Legislature wants to direct more money to assist crime victims

Money in a state account that grew out of efforts to aid victims of violent crimes has been going predominantly to the Department of Corrections instead, to cover inmate health care. Meanwhile, the state’s victim services programs are scrambling for money as a major federal funding source diminishes.

An Anchorage legislator wants to correct what she sees as an imbalance.

Of the $25 million in the state’s Restorative Justice Account, nearly $20 million went to the Department of Corrections. Only about $500,000 went to nonprofits that serve crime victims and domestic violence and sexual assault programs.

Anchorage Rep. Julie Coulombe proposed legislation last year to radically change that ratio.

“If I have a fund that’s supposed to help crime victims, I want to be sure that it’s being used properly,” Coulombe said.

She said she spotted the discrepancy when she was reading over papers for the Department of Public Safety Finance Subcommittee, of which she is the chair. She dug into old bills and reviewed past committee meetings to track down what happened and found that it is not the first time legislators have tried to stop the creep of funds from victim’s services to state prisons.

The roots of Alaska’s commitment to funding victim services are in the state’s constitutional provision for restitution, but lawmakers have struggled to make sure it happens for decades.

In 1988, the state decided to aid crime victims using the money that would have gone out as Permanent Fund dividends to people who did not qualify for PFDs because they were incarcerated or convicted of a felony in a given year.

But the Department of Corrections began getting most of the money instead.

In 2018, then-Rep. Chuck Kopp of Anchorage created the state’s Restorative Justice Account, in an effort to prioritize victim’s services. The law directs only about 2% of the funds for grants for services to aid crime victims and domestic violence and sexual assault programs, and 79% to 88% to the Department of Corrections for costs related to incarceration or probation. Coulombe said she wants to take the work that Copp started further.

Her bill would reverse the percentages, so crime victims services would get 79% to 88% of the money and Corrections would get 1% to 3%. She estimates that would result in $6 million to $7 million a year into toward restorative justice and programs that help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

That would solve a persistent funding problem for the state’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, which has faced budget gaps in recent years and has been reliant on federal pandemic relief dollars to fill them.

The relief money is gone this year, and the council faces a $4 million decrease from last year’s funding. Meanwhile, inflation has taken a multimillion dollar bite out of its spending power. Victim’s services programs have asked legislators to use state money to keep their programs afloat.

She said her bill would create a more reliable funding source for the programs and would keep them from having to seek one-time funding year after year.

“If we could get my bill moving, this argument doesn’t even need to be had,” she said.

Coulombe said the bill is a priority for her because she can relate to the victims of violent crime who never see restitution — she is one of them. “I was sexually assaulted. So I went through the rape kit, the rape kit got lost, never convicted anybody, got no restitution. I know how that all feels,” she said.

“I just know what it feels like to be a victim of a crime and that you just kind of get lost, just kind of fade away,” she said.

According to data from the Alaska Court System, the balance of outstanding court-ordered restitution is over $152 million. The court system estimates the number is actually higher because it does not track any restitution paid directly to the Municipality of Anchorage, which has a long-standing agreement with the court to collect its own restitution, or any restitution where the victims have opted out of state collection assistance.

Last year, the House State Affairs Committee recommended the House pass Coulombe’s bill, and it was referred to the Finance Committee, which has not yet scheduled it for a hearing.

There are eight weeks left in the legislative session.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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