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.Expensive to scale up
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.
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.