Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Crime Doesn't Pay(back)"

The Houston Press this week examined the important issue of victim restitution and discovered that:
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.

"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."

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.

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


Anonymous said...

A "legal lie" is an excellent term for it. Judges need to stop issueing these orders of restitution for large amounts. But, in Texas, that would force the judge to tell his voting public they won't be getting any money back and to stay elected, he/she can't do that.

For the victims owed the money though, they say "put 'um back in jail then," and "they're not following the judges order."

Nothing but a real circle jerk that has been going on for decades.


Anonymous said...

What underlies the idea of providing a victim with monetary restitution? We have to look at the underlying concept and decide if money is the best or only acceptable means of making restitution, if indeed, restitution should be made at all.

If we believe that restitution to victims is necessary as a society, then we should ask if the restitution is payable to only the victim of the crime, or could it be paid to the community in some form of service, or both.

With the current state of the economy, well managed prison industries could expand and offer part of the solution as referenced in Grits comments. But if we think outside the box, maybe victims and perpetrators could ender into a mediated agreement for other types of acceptable restitution, such as public speaking to youth and church groups, performing volunteer services at various state agencies such as the highway department etc. Restitution, in my mind is partly returning what was taken. Often that is more than just money. It is restoring a sense of privacy and psychological boundaries that were violated during the crime. It is restoration of the victim's dignity. The victim's participation in the decision making about what would work is very important. Perhaps the Victim's Compensation folks could begin looking at some type of mediation program.

Anonymous said...

And if the state takes all the 'assets' of a criminal, it then creates a new set of victims - the inmate's family, who already have to support the inmate financially while they are in prison because the state wont pay a few cents an hour for the work it makes inmates do. The whole thing is completely crazy.

If a criminal has recognisable gains from their criminal activities, then by all means allow the state to step in and sieze those. But dont put a family out of a house, or take their only car, just because a judge wants to keep his seat, unless that same judge is going to employ the family of the inmate or put them up in his or her house.

Anonymous said...

Your thinking is in error. Do you have any idea how many juveniles are locked up, because their family....fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters got them to take the blame since they were juveniles. It's a family problem! Get the younger one to take the blame for the older family members who are criminals. It runs in the family. If they invite crime, they all should have to pay.

Anonymous said...

Grits is on the wrong side of this argument.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

And what is the "right" side?

Anonymous said...

Some criminals are loners; even with their families. They are the few. Most families know which of their components(members) are criminals, yet choose to turn their heads, or even the criminal culture. When we just provide punishment to the loser, the family becomes enraged even more and produces more criminality. The problem must be checked at the beginning...the and dad; and make them become responsible, rather than..."gee it's the police...they're picking on my kids." Family responsibility in America is a SHAME. At one time you could sent these wierd's to the military, but even the military refuses them now. BACK to the FAMILY, again.

Don Dickson said...

I've always considered restitution orders to be their own form of double jeopardy. Let me explain.

When you commit a crime we say that you have committed a crime against the state. The prosecution against you is styled "State v. John Defendant." The indictment states that you have acted "against the peace and dignity of the state." When you're released from prison, we say (or at least we used to say) that you've "paid your debt to society."

With restitution orders, it's not enough to pay your debt to society, now you have to pay an actual person as well. We've unnecessarily personalized the offense. We should pick one or the other, the state or the victim.

The thing that cheeses me the most, in a lot of these cases, is that the restitution order bears no relation to the actual quantum of damages. Never mind the $1.7 million kind of orders, I'm thinking mostly of the smaller ones. I once represented a guy who pleaded guilty to criminal mischief after drunkenly driving over someone's concrete donkey on his front lawn. (I kid you not.) The plea agreement required him to pay the victim $500 for his concrete donkey. I found the stupid thing on eBay with a $50 reserve and no bidders. I even printed it out and showed the judge and prosecutor. But nobody gave a spit, if the owner said it was worth $500 then by-gum that's what the drunken evil-doer was going to be ordered to pay. It was senseless.

Anonymous said...

Good example of dumb gotten dumber. These dumb cases distracks from real cases, which need better judgements. Some judges are judgeless, but they have political contacts.

Anonymous said...

anon @ 7pm ~ if your spouse took your only car and ran into a family in their car, killed one or all and was found to be intoxicated, you would agree to the courts taking your car as restitution?

If your spouse discovered some major fraud activity at work but was then pressured or blackmailed into either keeping quiet, or worse, being complicit in the continued fraud, would you be ok with your house being taken as restitution because your spouse's pay went towards the mortgage?

You are stereotyping inmate families with your comments. Many are just like you and yours.

FleaStiff said...

Ofcourse those restitution orders get largely ignored. The criminal is not likely to live up to them even if financially able to; the time for compensation is prior to sentencing.
We already let merchants charge three times the value of shoplifted merchandise plus get the actual merchandise back, so making the criminal pay excessive restitution is not without precedent.
Marginal incomes in prison and marginal incomes outside of prison don't lead to much restitution.
The Scandinavian system of very prompt and very massive fines seems to work in most situations. A whopping fine, but keep your job and keep out of prison.
Judges used to intone Ten Dollars OR Ten Days. Rich men would pay the ten dollars Poor men would do the ten days. Now its far more than ten dollars and far more than ten days... and darn few of the defendants are anything but paupers.

Anonymous said...

Anything Andy Kahan says can be effectively ignored. He's a mean-spirited, blathering mouthpiece whose sole job seems to be as a go-to-guy for local media looking for Outrage at the System (TM) when some bad actor gets paroled early, or someone already on parole reoffends. I suspect his actual job is to provide highly-visible cover for the city on crime issues. Look! Over there! It's the Crime Victims' Advocate! Let's go talk to him!"

Anonymous said...

I have seen so many people come out of prison with no home, no family to speak of, no job skills (or, if they do have job skills, no way to use them as they are no longer legally allowed to practice a profession), no way to even start a life (i.e., first and last month's reant--and who rents to a felon?--utility turn on fees and large deposits required due to lack of credit--and owing immediate probation/parole fees, required class fees (anger mgmt, parenting, drug classes, etc etc)child support, restitution, legal fees, "crime stoppers fee", etc. They must find a place to live, a job, transportation to and from the job, parole vistits, classes, required drug treatment, meetings, etc. It is nearly impossible to work more than one job, due to the many and various requirements on the time of early parolees (meet with parole on monday, plus go to AA meeting--anger mgmt class on tuesday night, plus AA meeting, aftercare meeting on Wednesday, night plus AA meeting, and so on), and almost certainly impossible to live in even the most modest style on the income from a single job that most former inmates are eligible for--minimum wage type jobs, usually paying about $250 a week after taxes.

As someone else mentioned, this is a form of double jeapordy. They have paid their "debt to society". Either give them restitution and leave them IN society to earn the money for said restitution, or give them prison and consider the debt payed by their stay in prison, period.

Don Dickson said...

FleaStiff, I beg to differ with your assertion that restitution orders are "largely ignored." Try getting your case dismissed at the close of a period of deferred adjudication; or try fighting off a motion to adjudicate or an application to revoke probation in the absence of a canceled check for payment in full.

Anonymous said...

Fees required of probationers in felony and misdemeanor cases often pales in comparison to ordered restitution.

Probation officer fees could be better used for restitution rather than paying for the salaries for probation officers who for the most part monitor probationers from their courthouse offices.

And it would make sense to set lower bail in misdemeanor cases so that what money a defendant has could be better used to pay back to crime victims versus high bail bondsmen fees.

If I'm a merchant, I would rather the defenedant be able to pay me back rather than spending the money with a bail bondsman.

Anonymous said...

Grits couldn't be more right folks.

As a parole officer, I have seen several instances of offenders ordered to pay insane amounts of restitution. Many times they are well deserved. A lot of time the bulk of the money requested is aimed towards paying for astronomical hospital, counseling bills and unfortunately, funeral expenses for the victims and/or their families. In many of the same instances, the victim and family had little to no insurance to cover the costs or the insurnce ran stopped covering expenses altogether after paying out very little.

I will not disagree that prison is meant to be punitive. But if that's all we allow it to be for the people who will eventually get out, we will continue a vicious cycle of recidivism that will make unpaid restitution pale in comparison.


Several inmates who work in prison industries can make money by selling their respective crafts. This money is sent in money order form and deposited into their inmate trust fund accounts managed by the state. Some courts in Texas are now ordering restitution paid and actually getting it by taking a portion of the inmate's monthly trust fund balance and directing it to the victims.

The idea or replacing restitution owed through mediation would also be worth investigating. If you have a parolee who can make their weekly or monthly appointments but can't pay back $10,000 in restitution, there's no reason they couldn't be ordered to perform other services to saisfy a debt if the victim is willing to accept the trade-off.

Any other ideas?

Anonymous said...

12/09/2008 12:58:00 PM

Do parolees have to pay monthly fees to the state? If yes, how much? Where do these fees go and what are they used for?

Anonymous said...

They line some judges/etc, jp pockets, don't they?

Anonymous said...

the problem with prison inmate labor is that there's not enough oversight to ensure the jobs aren't being transferred from the free world into the jails.

case in point:

how many other jobs are being affected?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Except that article is promoting a false allegation about the effect of prison labor. I was planning to post on exactly that subject (Direct Trailer, etc.) soon; it's ridiculous to blame prison industries for another company's failure in the international marketplace.