Cannata now runs a nonprofit called Voices for Victims that provides transportation to parole hearings and other post-conviction services for crime victims. Over the years, he and other victim-rights crusaders have pushed for additional legislation to address sentencing inadequacies and related issues. Cannata is particularly proud of "Lynn's Law," passed in 2004, which requires violent felons in Colorado to serve at least 75 percent of their sentence before parole eligibility. Other changes to the parole process have eliminated offenders' ability to waive a hearing without advance notice or to apply for halfway-house placement right after being denied parole.

The new legislation has created special revenue streams designed to benefit victims — and, in some cases, to make offenders pay in new ways for their crimes. Colorado has had a victim-compensation program in place since 1981, which provides up to $20,000 to a crime victim for out-of-pocket medical expenses, property damage, burial costs or other losses not covered by insurance. The program is funded by surcharges imposed in court cases, ranging from $33 for a misdemeanor traffic offense to $163 for a felony, that are independent of any additional restitution the court might order. The program also receives millions in federal funds (including nearly $900,000 buried in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). In all, federal and state victim-compensation funds awarded $14.25 million to 7,758 Colorado crime victims in fiscal year 2010, an average of less than $2,000 per claim.

Other federal funds flow into the state through Victim of Crime Act grant awards ($6.65 million in 2011, for services ranging from bilingual counseling of victims in Eagle County to hiring prosecutors who specialize in domestic-violence cases in La Junta) and Violence Against Women Act awards ($1.9 million in 2011). Another pot of state money comes from a second surcharge on criminal defendants, which funds Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement programs operated by public agencies and private groups. This year the Colorado Department of Public Safety will dole out $1.2 million in VALE grants directly to various agencies; another $13 million in VALE funds are dispensed by local boards in the state's 22 judicial districts, appointed by the chief judge in each district.

Joe Cannata began aiding crime victims after he wasn't allowed to speak when the killer of his daughter Lynn was sentenced.
mark manger
Joe Cannata began aiding crime victims after he wasn't allowed to speak when the killer of his daughter Lynn was sentenced.
Nancy Lewis is the executive director of COVA, the most influential victim advocacy group in the state.
mark manger
Nancy Lewis is the executive director of COVA, the most influential victim advocacy group in the state.

The VALE money is the lifeblood of many victim groups, which compete for funding awarded by the local boards. Some of the awards go directly to victim services, such as a rape crisis hotline or a safehouse for battered women. But there are plenty of other uses for the cash, too. By statute, district attorneys, who are barred from the local VALE boards but are expected to administer the awards, can charge up to 10 percent in administrative costs. Add to that the awards made directly to their offices, to police departments and related entities, and fully one-third of the $13 million goes to government employees rather than victims.

VALE funds pay the salaries of many victim advocates in district attorneys' offices and police departments. They pay for digital cameras purchased by the Otero County Sheriff's Office and anatomically correct dolls used by the Firestone Police Department in investigating allegations of child sexual assault. And they pay for cops and prosecutors across the state to attend training and conferences sponsored by COVA and other groups, on topics such as "Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault," "Supporting Victims of Identity Theft" and "Officer Involved Shootings and PTSD." In 2010, VALE funds paid out $289,186 for various organizations just to attend COVA conferences; the salaries of the nonprofit's top employees (including Lewis), as well as an intern program operated by COVA that trains students to work with victim advocates in public agencies, are also supported by VALE grants.

Although COVA does have an emergency fund to assist victims directly when other sources have been exhausted, most of its energy is devoted to training and conferences; those activities provide its main source of revenue, apart from government grants. "That's a very big part of the mission, to see that the person dealing with a crime victim has good training," Lewis explains. "In other states, agencies that provide that training on a statewide level are housed in the governor's office. Being a nonprofit, we don't have to switch things around every time the governor switches."

Privately, grassroots groups have suggested that some of the state money expended on law enforcement training could be better spent on more immediate victim needs. But Cannata, whose fledgling group receives a trickle of VALE funds but also relies on donations and fundraisers in restaurants, doesn't have a problem with the arrangement. "I think the training is important to victims because it makes these people more victim-sensitive," he says. "It reminds them of the trauma the victim is going through."

Yet COVA's close interactions with police and prosecutors, as well as its organizational makeup, have led some to question whether it has sufficient independence from its government sponsors. Its current fifteen-member board of directors includes six people who work for district attorneys, three police department employees and four other employees of city or state agencies. Lewis also sits on the Crime Victim Services Advisory Board, which advises the Colorado Department of Public Safety on the distribution of various state and federal victim grants. That board, too, is dominated by government interests; one member identified as a "community representative" works for the Denver district attorney.

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7 comments
Guest
Guest

Some good points in here but the reporting is pretty one-sided.

For instance: Why no mention of the fact that the while COVA was urging their supporters to contact Rep. Duran and ask her to vote against HB 1287 the Pendulum Foundation was making the exact same plea to their supporters to get Rep. Duran to change her vote?

Also, you point out COVA's lobbying efforts several times but I didn't see any mention of the fact that the Pendulum Foundation is a client of J. William Artist & Associates, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Colorado.

I freely admit my bias - a family member was killed by one of the men whose sentence would have been retroactively reduced under HB 1287 - but if you're going to claim objectivity in your reporting, you should at least make an effort to not let your bias color the story.

calhounp
calhounp

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print Letters to the Editor section -- ideally with your full name/town. Let me know if that's okay at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

JusticeForAll
JusticeForAll

COVA has always been a direct arm of law enforcement and is so disconnected from the needs and voices of victims they claim to represent. They are far too systems oriented and it is abhorrent that money that VALE takes from direct service agencies is being given to COVA through the nepotism of personal relationships that exist between Nancy Lewis and her hand-picked board of directors.

On Fire
On Fire

Okay. Apparently COVA sees some victims as worth helping and others as not. The victims worth helping include abusive parents and the poor feeble prosecutors who are just trying to build political careers on the backs of abused children. The victims not worth helping are abused children themselves. Got it.

TruthSeeker
TruthSeeker

This was an amazing story. It's finally time that people started taking a look at the money trail of these organizations, especially COVA. They've been in the pockets of the systems-based agencies for years and get money funneled to them for their support. It's no accident that the Denver VALE administrator and co-administrator both serve on COVA's board and routinely take money away from direct-service agencies and hand it over to COVA. They do not speak for victims and I applaud the many agencies who have stood up to COVA to truly speak for their clients. Many of those folks have had their funding taken away by COVA's board members, who handle so much of the victim services funds in Colorado. Shame on COVA.

Catherine
Catherine

Thank you, Mr. Prendergast, for a very enlightening and in-depth story. Also, thank you to Mr. Lee for trying to find an outside the box solution to crime and community healing. The program might need finesse, but I believe it is an important step in the right direction. I hope that other Coloradoans support the measure. Catherine Keske.

Maryellen
Maryellen

Advocates for changing sentencing laws for juveniles serving life have always acknowledged that this issue is extremely complicated. There is no denying the pain of the victims and we advocates for sentencing reform have never done so. However in the past when we tried to introduce changes in the laws, we have been summarily dismissed by COVA and many district attorneys. "No, no, no." "The system is just fine the way it is." Our experience has been similar to Rep. Lee's. One year when we wrote voluntary restorative justice language into a bill, victims groups opposed it saying, "It has to be voluntary." When we pointed out that the provision WAS voluntary, they ignored the wording, pretending that it didn't say precisely what it DID say. No compromise, no changes are needed, regardless of evolving public opinion, scientific advances in the area of teen brain development, studies showing that juveniles receive harsher sentences than adults for the same crimes, and recent supreme court rulings.

We have enough obstreperousness on a national level. We in Colorado must be more thoughtful than that.

Kudos to Alan Prendergrast for a fresh look at a difficult issue. Victims are not a monolithic group and victims' rights groups, such as COVA, would be well served to expand their vision to include more restorative justice and to listen to the voices of victims who seek a measure of redemption and rehabilitation for offenders rather than endless punishment.

Somewhere amid all this pain and destruction there are areas of agreement and healing. I hope Alan's article and Rep. Pete Lee's legislation will be a step in that direction.Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive DirectorThe Pendulum Foundation

 
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