Across the entire state, 90.3 percent of offenders who were successfully discharged from 2003 to 2008 still owe their victims restitution. Fewer than 10 percent paid off all their restitution. Out of the more than $43 million those discharged parolees were ordered to pay, the parole division only collected 5.3 percent of it, or $2.3 million (see "Bad Debt").Unfortunately, reporter Chris Vogel mostly took his lead in the story from the City of Houston's "crime victims advocate" Andy Kahan, who keeps pretending that it's somehow possible for restitution as ordered to be paid back before the end of an offender's parole term. "It smacks of the ultimate hypocrisy," says Kahan. "A court order should be binding — no if, ands or buts."
That might be a reasonable stance if we're talking about a few hundred dollars, but restitution amounts are frequently set unrealistically high. For example, a major case study Vogel examined was that of a fraudster who scammed nearly $1.7 million from 17 people and was ordered to pay it all back when he left prison.
Such expectations ignore the fact that parolees leave prison with $100 and a bus ticket. Ex-prisoners must find a place to live, get transportation, pay for a drivers license and other bureaucratic fees to become street legal, and even then they're legally excluded from hundreds of professions and practically excluded from most others because of their criminal record. They have trouble finding housing, jobs, in some cases they're excluded from student loans, plus they must pay parole fees and other court costs (including a fee to the state crime victims compensation fund) in addition to restitution.
Under such circumstances, nobody is going to EVER be able to pay back $1.7 million or anywhere close to it without actually committing another crime! The Press story finally acknowledged, deep into the story, a point which should have been Vogel's lede: "This is the problem for which no one seems to have a solution: how to make someone pay money that they don't have."
Even so, the story was notably light on solutions. Instead, much of the early part of the article operates in Andy Kahan's imaginary realm of Tuffoncrimelandia, insisting there are "no ifs, ands or buts" when in fact there are big ones, like, "but they don't have the money to pay back." Or as Marc Levin put it, you "can't squeeze blood from a turnip."
Speaking of whom, though Levin and I are often on the same page regarding probation and parole, he promotes an idea in the story that I resoundingly dislike - Marc basically wants to let courts take every last asset from a parolee and leave them homeless and indigent if they have outstanding restitution orders. To me it makes no sense from a public safety perspective to force ex-criminals into an untenably desperate state because they'll likely respond by committing more crimes.
At any rate, nobody in the story suggested simply ending the charade - that courts should just stop issuing restitution orders that are a legal lie at the time they're written and which nobody (except, perhaps, the crime victim) expects to ever be paid.
A court could mandate that the sun rise in the west tomorrow, but that won't stop the first morning rays from appearing on the eastern horizon. However, courts every day enter restitution orders that are blatantly unrealistic and which they know at the time are unlikely to be enforced. Indeed, in many cases they should not, since doing so would worsen public safety and increase the likelihood of recidivism by the offender. It's cruel to the crime victim and undermines public respect for the justice system when the court touts expectations that can never be met.
There was no discussion of the state's crime victim compensation fund, which is about to get a big boost from its cut from TDCJ inmate phone service (which is just now being installed - in addition to its existing money sources, the fund will get the first $10 million of any profits from inmate phone calls and half the take thereafter). Perhaps expanding the scope of that fund would be a better mechanism for making sure victims get what's owed to them?
Gregory Stewart, an ex-offender interviewed for the story who owed a much smaller but for him still unattainable amount ($7,000), offered an excellent, much more practical suggestion than stridently demanding money from people who don't have it. He:
thinks TDCJ should make it easier for inmates to earn money while in prison.Unfortunately, the trend has been to limit work opportunities for offenders inside. Lately Sen. Robert Nichols has been on the warpath against Texas prison industries programs, claiming they're unfairly competing with free world companies. But offenders earning money through prison industries work actually do pay off restitution, fines and court fees while they're inside, so Nichols' push to eliminate in-prison labor may run counter to the best interests of crime victims.
"They should let us work and start paying as soon as we can," says Stewart. "If I'd have been able to pay during those four years I did, I think I would've been able to even complete my restitution."
This is an important topic and the Press offers a lot of new data about the problem. What's needed is a more robust debate about real-world solutions