NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Around $2.2 million went to victims of crimes in New Mexico throughout the last fiscal year, according to a recent report by the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission (CVRC). That’s nearly half a million less than the previous year. But across New Mexico, victim support and assistance programs received more than $20 million in fiscal year 2021 — over $1 million more than fiscal year 2020.
The system for paying out crime victim reparations has been around for decades. The state created the CVRC in 1981 with the goal of helping victims of violent crime handle expenses related to the crime they experienced.
The money funding the process comes from a variety of sources, including criminals. Each person convicted of a felony or misdemeanor in New Mexico pays a fee that goes into the victim reparation fund. Additionally, the state and federal government provide grants to support the CVRC.
While the commission doesn’t provide reparations for all crimes in New Mexico, it does cover some of the more heinous ones: Aggravated assault, criminal sexual penetration, stalking, homicide by vehicle, manslaughter, and human trafficking. Among the rules for reparation eligibly, the crime must have occurred within the last two years, and a victim must have endured physical injury or extreme mental distress as a result of the following crimes:
- Arson resulting in bodily injury
- Aggravated assault or aggravated battery
- Dangerous use of explosives resulting in bodily injury
- Negligent use of a deadly weapon
- Voluntary manslaughter
- Involuntary manslaughter
- Criminal sexual penetration
- Criminal sexual contact of a minor
- Homicide by vehicle or great bodily injury by vehicle
- Abandonment or abuse of a child
- Aggravated indecent exposure
- Human trafficking
- Assault against a household member
- Battery against a household member
- Failure to give information and render aid
To receive money, victims or victims’ families, apply to the commission to have crime-related expenses covered. If approved, they could receive up to $50,000. Most awards are much less, but that’s the maximum if the crime resulted in a permanent disability.
During the last fiscal year, 36% of the payouts went towards funeral expenses. Many payouts were intended to support victims of homicides, which have been on the rise in Albuquerque. “We are paying more per capita for funerals than any other state in the nation,” CVRC Director Frank Zubia told the New Mexico Legislature last month.
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Funeral costs, hospital expenses, and lost wages account for the majority of compensation paid to victims. Data from CVRC annual reports.
Apart from funerals, roughly 23% of the payouts covered hospital bills and lost wages for crime victims. Things like crime scene clean up and property damage can also be covered, but only make up a small portion of reparations.
“For a lot of these individuals, you know, they have all of these expenses that build up,” says Moises Valdez, the compensation bureau chief at CVRC. “We can cover those costs,” he says, “allowing them to then focus on their own internal healing and mental health.”
With decades of practice in helping crime victims, Valdez says there have been key changes along the way that make it easier for victims and their families to get financial assistance. One improvement was expanding the number of crimes that are eligible for a payout.
“We still have ‘aggravated assault,’ ‘aggravated battery’ [as eligible crimes], but we introduced ‘assault and battery on a household member.’ So, in those situations where circumstances surrounding the injuries or the incident itself didn’t necessarily meet that definition of ‘aggravated,’ we were still able to provide assistance,” he explains. “We also lowered our enumerated crimes from ‘aggravated stalking’ to ‘stalking’ and then in 2018, we also introduced ‘failure to give information and render aid.'”
The result is that more victims are now able to apply for assistance. For example, New Mexico state law requires drivers involved in car crashes to provide their information to the people hit. If they don’t, they might have “failed to give information and render aid.” A hit and run victim with injuries, therefore, is now eligible for victim assistance.
“Trauma is not linear,” explains MaryEllen Garcia, the grants bureau chief at CVRC. “It takes time to really kind of work through that.” And that’s what some of this money allows victims to do, she says, either by allowing victims to relocate, go to counseling, or stop worrying about paying bills.
CVRC reports show the number of applicants hoping to receive victim compensation has increased over the years. Around eight years ago, there were only about 1,500 applications submitted on average each year. Now, the CVRC receives an average of 4,000 applications each year. Still, the majority are approved, according to the CVRC.
Of the applications denied, the CVRC reports that most were denied because they were not fully completed. The data is fleshed out in a 2019 report the CVRC submitted to the federal Office for Victims of Crime, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
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While the CVRC doesn’t have data going back to its founding, their annual reports show that in the last few years, more than half of all compensation applications have been approved. And the total amount paid out has increased slightly. Data from CVRC.
There are likely additional people who are eligible for compensation but never apply. The CVRC is currently participating in a multi-state effort, attempting to identify underserved crime victims. The three-year effort seeks to figure out how the CVRC can better reach victims that need, but aren’t getting, assistance. Reaching people in rural regions of New Mexico is a particular challenge, according to Frank Zubia, the director of the CVRC.
“One of the biggest issues . . . is broadband,” Zubia says. While the CVRC has invested money and time into creating an online portal for victims to submit compensation claims, not everyone can access the webpage because of internet connectivity issues, Zubia says.
On top of that, the CVRC is understaffed and often faces budget deficits. Currently, the agency only has eight investigators working to fulfill compensation claims. Meanwhile, there are thousands of compensation claims from across the state each year. The CVRC is hoping to get more staff. “I was before the legislature and I’m going to go the end of the month because I need more people,” Zubia told KRQE. “And I’m not asking for a lot of people. I’m asking for three.”
It’s unclear if the legislature will fulfill the CVRC’s request. Lawmakers begin a 60-day session on January 18, 2022.