The Justice Department yesterday took the first steps toward implementing a new program to help the millions of Americans who become victims of crime each year.
The program is part of the massive anticrime bill that Congress passed last fall. It was approved at a time when violent crime -- and a widespread perception that the courts are too lenient on offenders -- made victims more vocal in asserting their rights in courtrooms across the country.
"It's an absolutely enormous step," said Lois Haight Herrington, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs. "It's a chance for the federal government to show some leadership in an area that is sorely needed, to show some compassion, and to address the imbalance of the criminal justice system," which some see as favoring criminals, not victims.
"We put so much attention on the criminal, we had forgotten about the victim," she said. "People simply have not thought of the victim."
Under the proposed guidelines published yesterday in the Federal Register, the new program would make available up to $100 million to states that have programs to assist crime victims. About 40 states, including Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, have some kind of victim-assistance program, although many of the programs have been plagued by a backlog of cases, a shortage of funds and a lack of publicity.
Funds for the program would come from several sources, including fines collected from persons convicted of federal crimes, forfeited bail money and money received by criminals from books or movies based on their lives.
Half the money collected would be given, on a matching basis, to states that operate programs to compensate victims for losses they suffer because of crimes. According to the guidelines, programs eligible for federal matching funds would have to give money to families of crime victims to help cover their medical costs, psychological counseling, lost wages and funerals.
The other half of the federal money would help states that operate various kinds of victim-assistance programs, such as rape crisis centers, shelters for battered women or advocate's offices to represent victims in court.
The new influx of federal money is expected to help states increase the average disbursement to individuals -- now about $10,000 -- while also encouraging victims to report crimes, since that would be a condition for receiving compensation in most cases.
Under the rules, a state would be eligible to receive from the federal treasury 35 percent of whatever the state distributed to victims in the previous year.
Also, the attorney general would be authorized to withhold 5 percent of the money collected to aid victims of federal crimes. The great majority of crimes committed across the country are covered by state and local criminal statutes, but federal laws are often used to set examples and standards.
The department is seeking comments on the guidelines through April 12. It expects to make grants this fiscal year to states that meet its criteria.
Crime touches about 40 million Americans each year, including 6 million victims of violent crime, according to the Justice Department. But the department estimates that about half of the incidents go unreported, in part because of victims' frustration with courts and law enforcement agencies.
As much as anything else, Justice Department officials hope the new program will signal a shift in government attitudes towards victims of crime.
"I think vigilantism arises with frustration with the system," Herrington said. "I think as we show that the system is working for the victim, I think as that becomes more well-known, people will not have that frustration level."