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Blumenthal, state victims' advocacy groups push for change in federal funding

Safe Futures of New London Executive Director Katherine Verano and other crime victims’ advocacy groups joined U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal in Hartford on Friday to rally for federal funding.

Friday’s event follows months of nationwide lobbying for the U.S. legislature to take up the issue. Federal funding for programs dedicated to victims of crime has been dwindling, and those who work with the victims are concerned about the impact on Connecticut organizations that help them.

The Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, passed in 1984, created a funding pool for state and local victim services groups and programs, which is not taxpayer funded. Instead, The Crime Victims Fund is funded with fines from federal convictions. During the past several years, VOCA funds have declined significantly due to a proliferation of nonprosecution agreements and deferred prosecutions.

On Friday, Blumenthal highlighted the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021, which would allow money from penalties and fines in deferred and nonprosecution agreements to be deposited in the Crime Victims Fund. He implored the U.S. Senate to immediately take up the proposal.

The legislation would provide "critical funding" — $4 billion to $7 billion — “from nonprosecutions and deferred prosecutions in the federal system,” Blumenthal said. “A guaranteed source of funding. Reliable, constant, so that victims’ compensation and victims’ services would be funded here in Connecticut and throughout the country. This investment is vital, and that’s why this legislation is bipartisan. It passed the House overwhelmingly. The vote there was 384 to 38. We need to pass it as soon as possible.”

Tonya Johnson of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which has 18 member organizations, including Safe Futures, said the group provides services to more than 40,000 people a year on average, including emergency shelter, crisis intervention and legal advocacy.

During Verano’s remarks, she noted that about 35% of the criminal docket in New London and Norwich courts consists of domestic violence cases. Safe Futures serves all of southeastern Connecticut’s 21 towns. “Keep in mind, just in southeastern Connecticut, that’s more than 3,300 victims in two courthouses we’re servicing a year,” she said.

The coalition sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy on April 7, urging him to support the Fix Act.

"Instead of prosecuting federal crimes, particularly white-collar crimes, the Department of Justice is increasingly relying on non-prosecution and deferred-prosecution agreements," the letter reads. "If these cases had been prosecuted, the monetary penalties would have been deposited into the Fund. Instead, the money that would otherwise go to serve victims is being deposited into the General Treasury."

In 2020, the money the coalition received from the fund decreased by 25%, "and victim service providers have been told to expect further, potentially catastrophic cuts," the letter reads. "Cuts of the magnitude that we are being warned about would devastate Connecticut's domestic violence service system."

VOCA helps fund Safe Futures’ court advocates, who work with victims in domestic violence arrests, and a law enforcement advocate who works with the Lethality Assessment Program, which police use to assess a victim's risk of being murdered, among other services.

Domestic violence incidents increased dramatically during the first month of the coronavirus pandemic, when calls to Safe Futures' hotlines increased by 20%.

During that time, three Safe Futures clients died in three weeks: one by drug overdose, one by suicide and one by murder, traumatizing staff. New London police responded to 30 more reports of domestic violence between March 1 and April 15, 2020, than they did in the same timeframe in 2019.

Those who need help can call the Safe Futures support line, (860) 701-6000 or (888) 774-2900, or visit ctsafeconnect.com. The agency's office at 16 Jay St., New London, is open with extra safety precautions in place, and victims' advocates continue to work in the court system.

s.spinella@theday.com

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