« A bit of holiday campaigning | Main | Reflecting on a legendary capital defendant »

December 24, 2007

The unpaid costs of financial punishments

A helpful reader sent me this link to an effective AP article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that highlights practical realities that surround financial punishments.  Here are excerpts:

A young burglar accused of burning down the St. Paul United Methodist Church 13 years ago was ordered to make $2.4 million in restitution. It was, at best, wishful thinking on the part of the court. A new church was built, but no thanks to him.  He coughed up a paltry $374.

Across the nation, billions of dollars in restitution, fines and court fees go unpaid, in part because the amounts are often symbolic -- so large that many defendants can't possibly pay up -- but also because many states and courts are ill-equipped to go after whatever money is available.

In Pennsylvania alone, the amount of unpaid fees, fines and restitution stands at a whopping $1.55 billion, including $187 million in Allegheny County, The Associated Press found.  Pennsylvania came up with the figure -- its first-ever statewide estimate -- after the AP asked it to run a query through a new court computer network.

"When you have a billion dollars' worth of outstanding restitution orders, you can see that the system is in collapse," said Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham. "It's a system that's fraught with inadequacies, improper checks and balances, no procedures in place. It's sort of a haphazard little dance that everyone dances around."

That is changing in some places. Many states have begun taking steps to force defendants to pay up, in some cases turning to outside companies for help, or ratcheting up their own in-house collection efforts. In Arizona, the amount of unpaid court costs, fines, fees and restitution totaled $831 million at last count. But the state has managed to bring in close to $90 million since it contracted four years ago with Affiliated Computer Services of Dallas, said Michael DiMarco, consolidated collections manager for Arizona's courts. Missouri and Minnesota also use Affiliated....

The total amount of fines and restitution owed in all 50 states is unclear. A national court organization and the U.S. Justice Department have no comprehensive figures.  The $1.55 billion in unpaid debt in Pennsylvania, accurate as of June 30, includes some orders that go back decades. The amount includes $638 million in restitution and $912 million in court costs, fees and fines.

About one-quarter of the total is owed by people who are in prison and generally can afford no more than token payments. Large amounts are owed by ex-cons and others who are struggling to make ends meet....

Prosecutors say collections would increase if judges would declare people who do not pay in violation of their probation, but that often falls behind other priorities, like trying to keep released criminals employed, drug-free and out of jail. To many judges, jailing people for nonpayment smacks too much of debtor's prison.

December 24, 2007 at 12:42 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The unpaid costs of financial punishments:


Sounds like an argument for more employment opportunities in prison. The rule could be that the prisoner gets paid only a token wage, BUT the rest of the job's value goes towards restitution payments.

i.e, Prisoner does work which, outside of prison, would pay $10 an hour. However, extra prison security costs $5 per prisoner hour.

Prisoner is paid $0.50 an hour.

The other $4.50 an hour goes towards restitution.

Prisoners could be offered slightly earlier release if they make significant, regular restitution payments.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Dec 24, 2007 1:43:41 PM

The other problem, is when a person in trouble is done paying his or her legal fees there is usually nothing left to pay back.
The legal fees start to break you and the restitution order finishes the job.

Posted by: | Dec 24, 2007 4:21:52 PM

Right on the nosey that offenders, on reentry, have bupkus to pay the government's inflated fees/fines/restitution (whatever euphemism is employed), and which inflated fees have been derived from inflated financial loss.

Be content! Notwithstanding defendants' failure to pay fines, federal prosecutors, federal judges, and the whole penumbra of the federal criminal justice system can still maintain, heads above water, pensions, tenure. Pshaw! The lot of the federal employee is a happy one.

Posted by: Fluffy | Dec 24, 2007 4:50:07 PM

There appears to be a flaw in the criminal justice system...time and time again prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts agree on fines and restitution during sentencing knowing darn well certain offenders are unable to pay back due to their own financial situations.
On the flip side, in cases such as those involving Enron officials, prosecutors and the courts allow these Ken Lay types to plea bargain a 1 million dollar fine and a term of 5 years in prison (example) knowing they may have stole well over 10-20 million dollars.
Where is the justice?

Posted by: jjay guy | Dec 24, 2007 8:50:47 PM

there is no justice when you are dealing in the federal system. They need to break it down and start again

Posted by: | Dec 24, 2007 10:16:38 PM

How is a convicted felon going to get a job, apartment, or credit when a civil judgment (restitution)is put on your credit report? Remember, this stay on your credit for 20 years.

Posted by: | Dec 24, 2007 10:46:15 PM

I recall that an eastern state paid the prison labor the standard wage for the work they did to counter objections about unfair competition from businesses and unions but they also charged the inmates room and board so inmates were effectively paid $0.50 per hour. In any case there is very little money left to pay fines, restitution and public defenders.

In Iowa the legislature established a priority list for distributing the money earned by prisoners the State of Iowa is first (DOC, fines, restitution and child support) and public defenders are near the end of the list. They do allow the prisoner to keep some of the money so they can buy stuff at the commissary.

In Iowa there are only a few hundred prison industry jobs that pay more than minimum wage. A surprising large fraction of the prisoners are not able to work because of scheduling conflicts and other reasons (mental illness for example). The warden of each prison has funds to pay inmates for work done to help operate the prison (food service, custodial, laundry and groundskeeping). They want to employ as many prisoners as possible and when you divide the funds available by the number of person-hours the pay rate depends on the prison and it is very low with $0.50 per hour a typical rate. Obviously they do not increase the funds as the prison population increases so the pay rate decreases over time.

Posted by: John Neff | Dec 25, 2007 10:20:46 AM

8-24-2009: I am a private contractor that collects unpaid court ordered fees and fines. Mr. DiMarco's situation in Arizona now refelcts a $809 million dollar backlog of unpaid accounts but is only able to liquidate $30 million a year. They can barely keep up with the new delinquent accounts each year at a 21% liquidation rate while the backlog continues to grow...so much for ACA. In Minnesota ACS has not been able to handle the workload and the Minnesota Department of Revenue just issued an RFP for new vendors to hel0p out!...so much for ACS!

Posted by: Anthony | Aug 24, 2009 9:18:59 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB