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Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Rape Victim Program Under Assault

State budget and DOJ propose drastic cuts of over 42%

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Almost half of the state's legislators are putting pressure on state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to preserve the Sexual Assault Victim Services (SAVS) program, the only state funding for services for survivors of rape and sexual assault.

SAVS is distributed to 46 agencies around the state to provide advocacy and counseling services to victims of sexual assault, 24/7 crisis telephone services, intervention and prevention education, and services for those who are hard to reach, such as rural residents, men, children, the elderly, disabled and minority victims.

The cuts to SAVS stem from three sources. The Republican-created state budget cut funding for SAVS by 10%; the Crime Victim and Witness Assistance Surcharge, paid by those prosecuted for sexual assault to fund the SAVS program, has declined; and state agencies have been asked to lapse money in their budgets because of lack of adequate state funding for operations.

The attorney general's lapse-related cut to SAVS is 5.2%.

If the cuts go through, SAVS funding will be cut by a whopping 42.5%—about $900,000, from approximately $2 million to $1.1 million—by Jan. 1, 2012. In addition, funding would be disbursed in quarterly increments of 25%, potentially leading to cash-flow problems in the agencies that receive the funding.

Steve Means, executive assistant for the state Department of Justice, sent a statement to the Shepherd blaming the Legislature for not fully funding the SAVS program in the state budget.

"The Legislature decides how much funding is allocated to the SAVS program," Means wrote. "If the Legislature is serious about funding the program, they can authorize the funds at any time, and we encourage them to do so. We fought these cuts. The Legislature supported them."

Although the $900,000 funding shortfall is tiny when compared to the $66 billion state budget, its impact would have a huge effect on agencies that aid sexual assault victims.

"The cuts would be truly devastating," said Ian Henderson, an attorney for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA).

Immediate and Long-Term Funding Questions

Legislators from both parties sent letters to Van Hollen last week asking him to find ways to fully fund the program in 2012.

The first letter, circulated by state Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay) and signed by 32 Democrats, urged the attorney general to exempt the SAVS program from the lapse-forced cuts and asked to work with him on long-term funding options for the program.

In an interview, Pasch said that in the long term, state general purpose revenue could fund the program, since the surcharge on offenders isn't able to meet the demands of the programs. She said the SAVS program not only benefits assault victims, but that it also helps law enforcement collect evidence that can be used in prosecutions. That, in conjunction with the proposed Child Victims Act, could prevent more sexual assaults from being committed in the future.

Republicans followed the Democrats' lead with a letter signed by 24 legislators, which asked the attorney general to use some of his $2 million in discretionary funds to shore up the SAVS program.

"My main concern is the immediate problem," said state Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), who circulated the Republican letter. "We'll deal with the long-term problem down the road."

He said all long-term funding options could be in play for SAVS.

Pasch said she couldn't help but feel the Republicans were being hypocritical by seeming to crack down on sex crimes perpetrators but doing little to help victims.

"They get all up in a bundle about keeping sexual predators out of our neighborhoods and putting chartreuse license plates on their cars and increasing felony charges," Pasch said. "But the flip side of that is that we also need to get rid of the statute of limitations [via the Child Victims Act] so we can go after family members who have been assaulting other family members for years. We only got two Republican Assembly members to sign on to that."

She said that she hoped Van Hollen would feel pressure from both parties and decide to find funds for SAVS.

Van Hollen's plan to cut SAVS and other DOJ programs must be submitted to the state Joint Finance Committee (JFC) for passive review. If even one member objects, the cuts would need to be debated in committee.

John Keckhaver, lobbyist for WCASA, said he was confident that at least one JFC member would object and force a discussion of SAVS.

He said the ball is in the attorney general's court right now.

"The Legislature can certainly prioritize victim services, and in the next state budget we are hopeful that a significant investment can be made in SAVS," Keckhaver said. "In the meantime, the Department of Justice has the opportunity to keep the program going by using their discretionary funds."

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