Gun Violence Work Could Use Billions of Dollars in Victim Assistance Funds

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VOCA: Shape of Gun over detail of U.S. Dollar Bill, money

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Gun violence in the United States has rapidly become a problem that has touched the lives of millions of people. Whether directly or indirectly, research shows that over 1.2 million people have been shot in the past decade, millions have witnessed gun violence firsthand and hundreds of millions of people will know at least one victim of gun violence in their lifetime. 

This is a crisis that leaves approximately 73,330 people wounded and claims the lives of over 36,000 people annually. Even in my home state of New Jersey where monumental legislation has been passed to combat the problem, 482 people die annually from gun suicide, urban gun violence and domestic violence.

VOCA: Jordan Costa (headshot), research assistant for New Jersey’s Center on Gun Violence Research, smiling woman with long blond hair, striped top

Jordan Costa

An emerging practice that has worked to interrupt this cycle of violence — and one that I have personally entrenched myself in over the last three years — has been hospital-based violence intervention programs (HVIPs). HVIPs can be situated in trauma centers, emergency rooms or other medical units. They serve to make direct contact with violently injured patients during their most vulnerable moments in hopes that they will be receptive to receiving resources to help them transition out of their dangerous environments. 

I had the great opportunity to work in one of these programs while living in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and was fortunate enough to meet some brilliant young men, albeit under some less than brilliant circumstances. Either at bedside or after discharge, I would sit down with young men who had survived their violent injuries and talk to them about what success would look like for them. 

During my time working in this program, I was able to play a small part in these young men’s lives by helping with things such as: building resumes, applying for jobs or food stamps, attending court with them, visiting them at school, creating action plans with their probation officers. I even took one man to take his road test for his driver’s license and lent him my car. 

VOCA could have helped

Much of what we could offer in our HVIP was constrained by the grant funding we were awarded. Admittedly, some services we provided were paid out of our own pockets because we knew that the help these young men needed was urgent, but we lacked the resources to offer them programmatically. For example, some men expressed a need for legal representation and we were fortunate enough to have had an existing relationship with a lawyer who offered to provide his services pro bono under these extenuating circumstances. 

Though our team was small, we tried the best we could. However, it was nearly impossible for us to meet the needs of all our patients with our limited resources. Looking back, there was a potential solution that we didn’t see until now: VOCA. 

VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) funding is federal funding from the Crime Victims Fund. It has been underutilized in the provision of services to survivors of gun violence, especially gun violence intervention programs that work to connect survivors to medical care, legal advocacy, mental health care, case management and housing accommodations. These funds come from federal criminal fines and fees, as opposed to tax dollars, and are given to states based on population size, which then disseminate funds to public agencies or nonprofits. 

Based on federal regulations, states must prioritize grants of at least 10% to victims of sexual assault, victims of domestic violence, victims of child abuse and underserved victims. However, there remains 60% of discretionary funds that could be awarded to organizations that fit the following criteria:

  1. be a public agency or nonprofit organization
  2. provide free services to crime victims
  3. demonstrate a record of providing effective services to crime victims
  4. match 20% of total cost of VOCA project
  5. utilize volunteers
  6. maintain records of personnel, materials, equipment, space and volunteer services
  7. promote coordinated efforts to aid crime victims
  8. help victims apply for VOCA compensation benefits
  9. comply with federal rules regulating grants
  10. maintain civil rights statistics on victims served
  11. comply with federal reporting requirements and any additional state criteria. 

While this piece specifically focuses on victim assistance grants, it is worth noting the limitations to both victim assistance and victim compensation funding for VOCA-eligible programs. In the case of victim assistance, service providers may utilize funds for all direct services so long as they do not include: lobbying, research and studies, investigation and prosecution of criminal activities, fundraising, capital expenses and medical care. 

But some victims excluded

On the other hand, for a victim to be eligible for compensation through VOCA, they cannot be determined to have been culpable in their own injury or death or have any criminal convictions. These particular compensatory criteria are troublesome as stigma and judgment should be absent from service provision. 

Individuals who come through the hospital are patients first and, regardless of the circumstances of their injury or past involvement in violence, deserve equal access to victim services. By excluding them, the likelihood of reinjury or that a victim engages in perpetration only increases, and the cycle of violence is consequently left uninterrupted.

In 2019, states received over $2.3 billion in VOCA funding. A recent federal audit revealed that states did not spend 37% of 2016 victim assistance allocation — nearly $851 million. When the money is not spent, it goes back to the federal government and programs are effectively robbed of the opportunity to provide direct services to survivors. Such funds would be game-changing for street outreach programs, trauma centers and hospital-based violence intervention programs, such as the one I worked in.

New Jersey has made massive legislative advancements in this area by proposing a partnership with state trauma centers to develop sources of counseling services for survivors of violent injury that can be billed to the Victims of Crime Compensation Office. If an individual is eligible, this alleviates an enormous personal and financial burden on the road to recovery by making these services free to them. 

The state has also been in the news for tapping into these funds via their recent announcement of allocating $18 million in VOCA funding for supporting and starting nine hospital-based violence intervention programs in communities disproportionately affected by firearm violence. Moreover, New Jersey has assigned the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (The HAVI), an organization of over three dozen intervention programs, as a technical assistance provider to share best practices and awarded them their own VOCA grant of $2 million. 

We have come a long way in the last two decades when it comes to giving the proper attention to not only gun violence research, but, more importantly, the communities and individuals that suffer most. By no means should we be complacent with where we presently stand, as this is not a problem that can be solved simply with money, although one can only imagine the type of impact we could have had in our hospital-based intervention with this level of financial support.  

VOCA funds are a valuable first step in utilizing federal resources for providing direct services to survivors and to combat gun violence at its source. As such, states should make investments in intervention programs more available, and intervention programs should be knowledgeable about the resources they are eligible for and feel confident enough to request the funding they need.   

Jordan Costa is a doctoral student at Rutgers University, Newark in the School of Criminal Justice and a research assistant for New Jersey’s Center on Gun Violence Research. She also serves as a part-time graduate research associate at Arnold Ventures and previously worked in social service provision at Capital Region Violence Intervention Program.

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