Millions of dollars in unspent D.C. Superior Court funds intended for crime victims may disappear into the U.S. Treasury unless intensive efforts to rescue the money are successful.
Congress remains unconvinced that the money should stay in the city after the budget year ends Sept. 30, despite last-minute attempts by the the court, the D.C. Council and the Justice Department to preserve the funds for people harmed by violence.
Advocates say it would be a shame to lose nearly $6 million that could pay for such things as funerals, medical bills and counseling.
"There are thousands and thousands of violent crime victims and other victims who are eligible. I don't know why people would think there's not a need," said Kathryn Turman, head of the Justice Department's crime victims program.
The court now favors a Justice Department approach to expand outreach to individuals and to give leftover money to organizations that help victims.
The D.C. Council and the U.S. attorney's office are also aboard, but they face an uphill battle persuading Congress to change the D.C. appropriations bill, now awaiting action in the House and Senate.
The crime fund dispute comes during a General Accounting Office audit of court finances and personnel practices prompted by congressional frustration with the court's leadership.
In a report critical of court management, the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District called last month for immediate improvements in courthouse financial operations and accountability. To protect $33.3 million for lawyers for the District's indigent population, the committee designed an account to be kept separate from the court's general fund.
"While the committee recognizes the need for financial flexibility by the courts," the committee wrote, "the definition of flexibility does not include 'shell games' or misleading information or ignorance of congressional directives."
Members of the five-judge committee that administers Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals expressed their objections to the report and requested changes, said Appeals Court Chief Judge Annice M. Wagner, who chairs the court committee.
The flash point is the Crime Victims Compensation Fund, a Superior Court program often described as valuable and efficient, although even supporters wish it were more aggressive. Improvements have been noticeable since June 1997, when the D.C. Council transferred the fund and its caseload to the court after the District government mismanaged it.
Six employees working in a courthouse annex have considered 1,628 claims and awarded $2.8 million since then, principally to crime victims and their families. Processing time has dropped from an average of 48 weeks, when the District ran the program, to six weeks now.
Starting in the 1998 budget year, all filing fees from the two courts were channeled into the fund, meaning an infusion of $6.2 million this year alone. Another $700,000 flowed from other sources, the court reported.
The fund distributed $973,204 to crime victims and their families in the first 10 months of the budget year. The fund contains $6.2 million, with less than two months to go.
Congress intends that all unspent money be deposited in the U.S. Treasury when the budget year ends, apart from $250,000 set aside to ensure a smooth flow of cash to victims. On Oct. 1, the fund will start spending fresh fee receipts, expected to top $5.5 million.
The court, which plans to hire two more workers, promises to try to reach a greater number of victims, especially the elderly and disabled. To spread the word further, the D.C. police department will teach officers about the issue this fall and distribute fliers to victims.
"We know a lot more has to be done," said Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer. Police will "make sure that each officer not just hands out a document to a victim, but understands the responsibility to a victim," he said.
"The issue has not been insufficient money," said David Beatty, public policy director at the nonprofit National Center for Victims of Crime. "The real focus has to be on educating every victim. Obviously, we haven't been doing a very good job of that."
Frances Witherspoon and her son Esaie learned of the program when they answered a summons about an unpaid medical bill. Esaie needed 25 stitches in his hand and an operation after he struggled against a man who attacked him with a knife, his mother said.
When the medical expenses came due, Witherspoon, a young music producer was uninsured. He applied to Superior Court, where the crime fund paid his bills, totaling $3,613.
"It made a great difference to us," said Frances Witherspoon, a D.C. university secretary.
The fund pays as much as $25,000 to victims and families harmed by violent crime in the District. D.C. residents who suffered as a result of a terrorist act outside the United States are also eligible.
It is not necessary that anyone be arrested. The victim must have made a police report, requested a restraining order or, in the case of sexual assault, sought medical treatment.
To qualify, victims must cooperate with "reasonable" requests of law officers and the victim must not have been breaking the law when the incident occurred, said program director Laura Banks Reed in a written response to an interview request.
Among covered expenses are lost wages, crime-scene cleanup, temporary housing for domestic violence victims, medical bills, counseling and the cost of clothing held as evidence. Funeral costs are covered up to $3,000. The average payment this year has been $2,870, Reed said, up from $2,235 in 1998.
Turman reviewed the fund's 1998 spending and concluded that important segments of the D.C. community were insufficiently served by the program. She noted that there were 236 awards for homicide cases but none for child abuse or drunken-driving injuries. Although $612,000 went for funeral expenses, Turman said, only $14,000 was spent on mental health counseling.
Turman questioned whether court social workers and Superior Court judges understand that the money is readily available to children, for example, who need counseling after witnessing violence or being sexually or physically abused.
"I can't tell you how many kids I came across at the U.S. attorney's office who witnessed the murder or a violent assault of a parent or family member, not to mention kids who saw stuff on the street," said Turman, a former D.C. prosecutor.
Although advocates contend the court should work harder to broaden the program's client base, court leaders twice proposed spending big chunks of victim money on courthouse operations.
In 1998, Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton and court Executive Officer Ulysses B. Hammond, faced with a cash crisis, proposed spending $4 million of the civil court fees designated for the victims fund. This year, Hammond circulated two pieces of draft legislation that would funnel the civil fees, about $6 million a year, into a new information technology account that would pay for computers and staff at the court's discretion.
"They just wanted to spend it," contended John Albaugh, chief of staff to Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), who is chairman of the D.C. House Appropriations subcommittee of the District. But, Albaugh said, "That money's for the victims."