Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rape and domestic violence victims are getting shortchanged in Alaska budget, representative says

Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage, speaks on an amendment during committee debates over the draft state budget on Tuesday, March 28, 2023.
James Brooks
Alaska Beacon
Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage, speaks on an amendment during committee debates over the draft state budget on Tuesday, March 28, 2023.

Money in a state account that grew out of efforts to aid victims of violent crimes has been going predominantly to the Alaska Department of Corrections to cover inmate health care. Meanwhile, the state’s victim services programs are scrambling for one-time state funds as a major federal funding source diminishes. An Anchorage legislator wants to correct what she sees as an imbalance.

Of the $25 million in the state’s Restorative Justice Account, nearly $20 million went to the Department of Corrections. Only about $500,000 went to nonprofits that serve crime victims and domestic violence and sexual assault programs. Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage, proposed legislation last year to radically change that ratio.

“If I have a fund that’s supposed to help crime victims, I want to be sure that it’s being used properly,” Coulombe said.

Coulombe said that she spotted the discrepancy when she was poring over papers for the Department of Public Safety Finance Subcommittee, of which she is the chair. She dug into old bills and reviewed past committee meetings to track down what happened, and found that it is not the first time legislators have tried to stop the creep of funds from victim’s services to the Department of Corrections.

Going further for victims

The roots of Alaska’s commitment to funding victim's services are in the state’s constitutional provision for restitution, but lawmakers have struggled to make sure that it happens for decades.

In 1988, the state decided to aid crime victims using the money that would have gone as Permanent Fund Dividends (PFDs) to people who did not qualify for PFDs because they were incarcerated or convicted of a felony in a given year. But the Department of Corrections began getting most of the money instead.

In 2018, then-Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, created the state’s Restorative Justice Account in an effort to prioritize victim’s services. The law directs only about 2% of the funds for grants for services for crime victims and domestic violence and sexual assault programs, and 79-88% to the Department of Corrections for costs related to incarceration or probation. Coulombe said that she wants to take the work Kopp started further.

I just know what it feels like to be a victim of a crime and that you just kind of get lost, just kind of fade away.
– Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage

Coulombe's bill would reverse the percentages so that crime victims services would get 79-88% of the money and the Department of Corrections would get 1-3%. She estimates that would result in $6-7 million a year towards restorative justice and programs that help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Alaska Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner April Wilkerson said that the change would have a “net zero” effect on the department. It would simply request a fund source change through the budget process, which it already does when the available Restorative Justice Account funds fluctuate.

That would solve a persistent funding problem for the state’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, which has faced budget gaps in recent years and has been reliant on pandemic relief dollars to fill them. The relief money is gone this year and the council faces a $4 million decrease from last year’s funding. Meanwhile, inflation has taken a multimillion dollar bite out of its spending power. Victim’s services programs have asked legislators to use state money to keep their programs afloat.

“The reduction in the victim services in the governor’s budget is spotlighting this problem,” Coulombe said.

Coulombe said that her bill would create a more reliable funding source for the programs and would keep them from having to seek one-time funding year after year.

“If we could get my bill moving, this argument doesn’t even need to be had,” Coulombe said.

“I know how that all feels”

Coulombe said that the bill is a priority for her because she can relate to the victims of violent crime who never see restitution — she is one of them.

“I was sexually assaulted. So I went through the rape kit, the rape kit got lost, never convicted anybody, got no restitution. I know how that all feels,” Coulombe said, adding that she was in no way aiming a criticism at the Department of Corrections.

“I just know what it feels like to be a victim of a crime and that you just kind of get lost, just kind of fade away,” Coulombe said.

According to data from the Alaska Court System, the balance of outstanding court-ordered restitution is over $152 million. The court system estimates that the number is actually higher because it does not track any restitution paid directly to the Municipality of Anchorage, which has a long-standing agreement with the court to collect its own restitution, or any restitution where the victims have opted out of state collection assistance.

In 2023, the House State Affairs Committee recommended the House pass the bill and it was referred to the finance committee, which has scheduled it for a hearing on March 11. The bill’s co-sponsors are Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage, Andi Story, D-Juneau, and Frank Tomaszewski, R-Fairbanks. The bill has no companion legislation in the Senate.

This article is republished from the Alaska Beacon.