When someone is the victim of a crime, the impact can be physical, emotional or financial –many times, it’s all three. Every day, I talk with victims who were devastated financially because of a crime someone committed against them. Some lose their jobs, their retirement savings, even their homes.
Court ordered restitution is designed to help victims with the expenses they have incurred because of someone else’s actions. And it is a right of crime victims.
While most judges order restitution, too often victims receive very little of the money. One reason is that some offenders often have few resources and even fewer financial prospects. Other reasons include the policies, practices and priority that the system places on the issue of restitution.
In February, the Restitution in Pennsylvania Task Force released a report concluding that while restitution has been mandatory for most crimes since 1995, it’s one of the most under-enforced victims’ rights.
The Task Force report includes 47 recommendations that could greatly enhance Pennsylvania’s restitution process and go a long way toward restoring victims. Some of those recommendations include creating consistent restitution collection programs across all counties, encouraging counties to dedicate staff to focus on collections and enacting legislation that would allow wage attachments for defendants who have the ability to pay, or who have been found in contempt for not paying restitution, costs or fines.
It has been six months since the report was released and we do have some good news to report.
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts is developing a restitution bench book and other materials for the juvenile and criminal justice system.
The Juvenile Justice Subcommittee is developing a victim’s guide to the juvenile justice system.
The Board of Probation and Parole is now receiving quarterly court data that provides the amount of fines, costs and restitution owed per offender on state parole supervision.
Dauphin County has assigned staff to work solely on the collection of restitution and Lancaster County is filing civil judgments.
Legislation has been introduced to ensure that state lottery winners and recipients of state income tax refunds pay their restitution obligation.
The progress that we are making is promising, but there is still more work to be done. Statewide, $434 million in restitution was assessed from 2010 to 2012, and $50 million was collected.
While there are caveats to this raw data, it does demonstrate the enormity of unreimbursed losses to victims, as well as the potential for relief to those victims if successfully collected and paid.
Other recommendations from the report need to be acted on. Each county’s restitution policies and practices are vastly different. State and county agencies perform restitution functions with varying levels of attention and success. Resources and tools available to stakeholders are few. Communication at all levels is inconsistent.
Offenders, too, benefit from paying restitution. Research shows that offenders who pay restitution and who understand that the money is going to pay for their victim’s losses are less likely to commit another crime.
It is critical that legislators and policymakers at the state and county level remain focused on changes that would improve the ordering, collection and distribution of restitution. It’s good for victims, it’s good for offenders and it’s good for the community.
Carol Lavery is the Commonwealth’s Victim Advocate. Victims have many rights in Pennsylvania. Some rights require the victim to ask to receive them or register to receive. For more information visit the Office of Victim Advocate at www.ova.state.pa.us.