Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Nobody trying very hard to distribute crime victim restitution

Grits was glad KXAN-TV published their story on unclaimed awards to crime victims, but the "gotcha" journalism approach aimed at the local probation department was misplaced. They reported that "a KXAN Investigation discovered $22 million that actually belongs to Texans are sitting in state coffers and little is being done to make sure that money gets to its rightful owner."
The money comes from restitution payments ordered in criminal cases from courts across the state. If someone is arrested and charged for committing a crime against you, anything from breaking into your house or crashing into your car while driving drunk, chances are, the court will require the criminal to pay you money for damages or injuries you may have. But, many crime victims are never called to appear in court and are unaware they have money coming to them. State law requires the courts to notify you, but in some cases that person may never see the money.

KXAN obtained a list of crime victims Travis County says it can't find to give them their money. However, we found it's pretty easy.
Expensive to scale up
In what's a bit of a cheap shot from a journalistic standpoint, they proceed to locate several people with relatively distinct names on the list (e.g., "Ian Pirie") to demonstrate that, with some legwork, these crime victims could have been located via Google and social media.

But to scale that process up would require staff, and the probation department doesn't have it. Nor does the state pay them for that task, which is beyond the minimum statutory requirement for what they're supposed to do to locate crime victims owed restitution. Admittedly, the law's insistence on a certified letter to the last address as the sole mandated investigated tactic is needlessly limiting and anachronistic. But from the standpoint of how government historically has communicated with the public, it's pretty typical. And the alternatives being suggested aren't free.

According to the report, "California created an 'Unknown Victims Unit' that successfully located thousands of crime victims and handed out more than $9 million since 2010. Comptroller Hegar is now looking into how his office could do something similar." Presumably, that unit has dedicated staff whose job it is to do that. While it's probably a good idea, nobody at either the Comptroller's office or already understaffed local probation departments are paid to perform that function right now.

Victims a low priority
For at least three decades in American political culture, crime victims have been used mostly as fodder for tough on crime political salvos against candidates and advocates deemed too "soft." As the restorative justice movement has long understood, though, in reality the criminal justice system sometimes seems designed almost antithetically to victim's needs, right down to, clearly, not prioritizing victim restitution. Giving crime victims their money would be a good start but cannot resolve the more fundamental questions and dilemmas facing 21st century crime victims. Regardless, thousand mile journeys must begin with a first step.


Anonymous said...

In my career of writing pre-sentence investigations for the courts, every so often you get a case that has been languishing in the courts for 2-4 years while the attorneys battle it out. By the time probation sees the case for the PSI, the victims are long gone (sometimes they were military families who PCS'd to another state or country, sometimes they are habitual renters who have moved and changed their numbers, sometimes elderly folks who have since gone to paradise). How is probation supposed to fix that when probation only has 30 days to do what the prosecutors' offices have had years to do and didn't? The allegation in the story is that probation is holding this money to make money. Seriously? If the victim can't be found, the money is held until the victim is found. I've had cases that I spent more than a year trying to track down the victim. But, you can't access Facebook or other social media on county computers. Probation officers don't have access to the kinds of databases journalists do, or that the Comptroller does. The change that is needed is not another bureaucratic mess in Austin. Prosecutors need to stay in touch with victims and keep the victim apprised of the case. Victims also need to stay in touch with the prosecutor. If you move 3 times, tell the prosecutor that you've moved. How hard is that? The allegation that CSCD's are somehow profiting from this is laughable.

Anonymous said...


What, no Google?

@Charles Robinson-
"...Our practices are consistent with our legal obligation..." (or, I'm too lazy to know how to do my job adequately.)

Yet, somehow -amazingly- paychecks make it into the hands of these Guvt. employees.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@5:53, and how, pray tell, is he supposed to staff that function? Please elaborate.

Anonymous said...

If they could first tell us what they ARE doing, then we can work from there. But walking away from a new reporter who is looking for clarification is the absolute wrong answer.

If there is a webpage with a database -- and there is...


..then there is certainly a webmasters who is getting paid to maintain the database and website. Make it these peoples responsibilities to at the very least ATTEMPT to contact the people in their database. Robo-emails? Robo-calls?

Maybe tap into the DMV database for addresses?
There are not difficult questions if one is looking for answers.

And the interest accrued on the $22mil is more than enough to hire a few high school kids.

Hell, I'll do 'GOOGLE' searches for Robinson is it's that difficult for him.
A damn shame you rationalize this behavior off as a 'budget' issue.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You're clueless about how government works, 9:49. This is an ongoing, labor intensive job, not something you hand off to high school kids.

Also, the interest on $22 million is spread out over >100 probation departments and doesn't pay for what would be required. It probably pays for the certified mail they do now, but not much more. And probation departments have lots of other obligations (like monitoring probationers), this is at best a secondary function for them.

I suggest you volunteer to do the searches yourself then come back in a month and tell us whether it'd be easy to distinguish between 1,000 John Smiths to give the $$ to the right one. Not everybody is named "Ian Pirie."

Anonymous said...

5/3/16 @ 4:10 here: Google doesn't always work (I Googled myself and didn't find a relevant entry until page 9). As Grits noted, there aren't that many people named "Ian Pirie" in the world. And as the news story found (and glossed over), the Comptroller's rep had his name misspelled. That was likely a misspelling that started at the PD who initially investigated the case. Is probation supposed to go back to the beginning of the investigation? When will anyone at probation have the time to do that? If probation turns it's focus to tracking down victims, when will probation have time to deal with probationers? We like to have simple thoughts about the size of government being too big, but if you actually look at what's happening on the ground, you'll see that most government agencies are understaffed and are required to do all kinds of things they're not paid to do. But if one thing goes wrong, they get raked over the coals, tarred and feathered.

My point from my original comment still stands: as taxpayers, we fund positions at local PDs and SOs called "Victim Coordinators." Their job? Stay in contact with the victim and keep the victim apprised of the happenings of the case. Most prosecutors' offices also have victim coordinators. If you are a victim, let these people know if you've moved so your address can be updated. If you're a family member of a victim who passed away, notify the victim coordinator so the Court can decide if restitution should be forwarded to the estate or other family members. But not if no one bothers communicating.

Steve said...

As a CSCD Director and the victim of a crime for which I never received restitution (a drunk driver totaled my 65 Mustang, and almost totaled me), this hits close to home. It's often very difficult to find victims. We have a part time position in which our staff member does nothing but look up absconders and missing victims. Ultimately we have to turn thousands and thousands of dollars over to the state because we can't find the victims - for all the reasons that Anonymous @ 10:00 pm indicated.

Anonymous said...


Your blog is exceptional. I hope you keep up the great work!
In fact, I think I'll assist by donating to the cause.

I wrote you a check in the amount of $1000 and put it in the mail.

I hope I spelled your name correctly, and got your address correct.

I probably could have just clicked the PayPal buttons on your webpage to make things easier, and you would get your funds faster.

I'm generous, but not THAT generous.

Jim Stott said...

Dang Steve...totaling a 65 Mustang should have been a capital offense.

Anonymous said...

Just one of many ... not to difficult or costly.