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Alabama Legislators Open to General Fund Compensation for Crime Victims

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Mothers of crime victims and others went to the office of the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission last month to ask about delays in claims being processed and problems getting information from the agency. (Mike Cason/mcason@al.com)

By Ralph Chapoco

Alabama Reflector

The Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission is turning to the General Fund for a stable source of funding after years of relying solely on fines and fees to support its operations.

Commissioners and staff are approaching lawmakers seeking monetary support to compensate victims and fund its operations, as applicants say they face long wait times and limited communications from agency.

“The financial situation has been serious for quite some time,” said Kim Martin, the interim executive director for the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission, in an interview Monday. “Certainly, in conversations I have had with the previous director, we have discussed it, but I do remember at the December commission meeting having a very serious discussion about the state of the commission’s finances and the need to seek out additional funding.”

Martin spoke less than three weeks after family members of crime victims from Birmingham and other areas gathered Montgomery to seek answers about slow responses to requests for financial help.

Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, the chair of the House Ways and Means General Fund committee, said Tuesday he was open to the idea.

“I do think it is something that we need to take seriously,” he said. “I go back to the governor’s comments in her speech about spending money today to make a better Alabama tomorrow. Well, this is a prime example. We got victims who need to get compensated, and I think it is a line item we will take very seriously.”

The commission does not currently receive any allocation from the General Fund for either its operations or the claims that victims, or their families. Instead, it gets its money exclusively from fines and fees, as well as restitution.

The agency receives a portion of costs assessed paid by people involved in the court system, moving violations and victim assessment fees.

Those revenues have continued to decline. According to the report the agency published for fiscal year 2012, it took in about $5.3 million. The agency received more than $1 million each from the city court fees, county court fees and restitution.

By 2021, the Commission reported that its revenues had declined to $4.5 million. It received almost $860,000 from city court fees, $830,000 from the county courts and about $760,000 from victim assessment fees.

With the shortfall, the commission has decreased the maximum thresholds it pays to victims and their families, and reduced staff who manage the claims process.

The staffing and revenue shortfalls have led to longer waits for victims and families applying for help with expenses. Those dealing with the commission have become increasingly frustrated with what they view as limited communication from the agency.

Grieving Family Members

Last month, family members of crime victims from Birmingham and other areas gathered in the lobby of the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission to seek answers about requests for financial help.

Martin spoke to the group in the commission’s lobby and said the agency is severely understaffed because of a decline in funding.

Karen Nathan of St. Clair County, whose son Stanley Ray Hopson Jr., 36, was murdered in his Birmingham apartment in May 2021, was among those expressing her frustrations. Nathan is seeking reimbursement for funeral expenses, one of the costs the commission can help pay.

Nathan said she sent a document the commission requested but could not get confirmation that they got it. Two months later, she got a letter requesting the same document.

“You call me and ask me to call you back and email you,” Nathan said, describing her difficulties in communicating with the commission. “And I email you back. Could you not just address the email or make a phone call back? I call you back to answer whatever it is you were asking me for. What I wanted was a verification that you actually got what I sent you.”

Nathan is part of the organization What About Us, a nonprofit founded by Sheree Kennon of Birmingham, who also lost her son to gun violence.

With the situation increasingly more desperate, commissioners are now tapping lawmakers for an allocation to the General Fund. They approached Reynolds at budget hearings on Feb. 23.

“Over the years the fines and fees model did work in the early days, but we have seen, at least in 10 years, how that has dropped off considerably,” said Darlene Hutchinson, a member of the commission, in an interview Monday. “The education budget wasn’t really an option because it doesn’t fit.”

Commissioners said $5 million would allow them to hire staff and increase compensation for victims.

Other legislators said they were open to the idea.

“I am going to see what Rex Reynolds recommends from the General Fund, and I am certainly going to read everything that he puts out,” Hill said.

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, the chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee, also said he would consider a line item in an interview Tuesday, though he added that he was trying to keep the budget on “solid ground” amid inflation and the recent banking crisis.

“I will take a look at that,” he said. “I know they have regular funding through court costs and such. I need to evaluate that some.”

Whether or not the Commission will receive money will depend on the priorities of the legislators tasked with overseeing the budget.

“Have you seen the other agencies’ demands?” Albritton said. “Everyone is going to be considered. Everyone cannot be accommodated.”