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November 22, 2010

Effective coverage of restitution realities in Philadelphia courts

Yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer had this notable piece about the limited payment of restitution punishments in its local courts.  The piece was headlined "Victim restitution lags badly in Phila." and here is an excerpt:

Convicted criminals in the city owe hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, fees, and restitution to their victims, but the courts have not found a way to get them to pay up.  Philadelphia defendants are supposed to be paying out $144 million a year, court officials say.  At last count, they were paying only $10 million yearly. That works out to 7 cents on the dollar.

Of the 224,000 convicted defendants on payment plans, 206,000 are behind. Almost all are months in arrears.  And Philadelphia's court system trails far behind the rest of the state in getting defendants to pay up, comparative data show.

Under a statewide rule, when the guilty make payments, court systems must first see that money goes to the state's victim-compensation fund and victim-services programs.  The charges are modest -- $35 per offender to the compensation fund and $25 to victim services.  Yet last year, Philadelphia ranked last among Pennsylvania's 67 counties in support for the services program and was second to last for the compensation fund.

Financial collections have not been a strong suit for the city courts.  As The Inquirer has reported, about 210,000 fugitives owe a staggering $1 billion in forfeited bail. Nor does the system simply garnishee the pay of offenders, though that's permitted under Pennsylvania law. Court officials say they are considering doing that.

For victims, it all adds up to frustration. "It's been 10 years, and I've collected $147," said Helen Sztenderowicz, 53, a dental hygienist who now lives in Montgomery County. "He robbed us. He owes us this money, and he's not paying."

Increasingly, judges across the United States are demanding that criminals be held accountable in a very concrete way -- by putting up cash to compensate their victims.... Since 2006, Philadelphia judges have ordered 8,115 offenders to pay money to almost 11,000 victims, records show.  But many of those victims received nothing. Figures for earlier years aren't available.  Despite the woes in Philadelphia, experts and officials elsewhere say that offenders can be made to pay.

A pioneering New Jersey program found that if judges were willing to threaten to imprison defendants for nonpayment, offenders indeed made "significantly more and larger payments," according to a report on the effort by David Weisburd, a University of Maryland criminologist.

David C. Lawrence, the Philadelphia courts administrator, said his staff was working on innovative efforts to collect money and had already begun to go after the $1 billion in bail money.  Along with garnisheeing pay, the courts are eyeing a plan to revoke the driver's licenses of those who don't pay.  "We are taking unprecedented steps to aggressively pursue financial obligations owed by offenders," Lawrence said.

At the same time, Lawrence said, dunning the Philadelphia offender population is no easy matter.  Of the 48,000 men and women on probation or parole, he noted, 69 percent are jobless.

Read more: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/front_page/20101121_Victim_restitution_lags_badly_in_Phila_.html#ixzz161tikQmn Watch sports videos you won't find anywhere else

November 22, 2010 at 11:36 AM | Permalink


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I find it especially troublesome that bail money is not being collected. Isn't the bond supposed to be deposited before the defendant is released from custody? What kind of corrupt bond system allows the guarantor to say "Oh sure, Your Honor, w're already way behind, but we promise that if this guy skips we'll pay up." That just doesn't make sense.

For personal bonds I would certainly expect the court to require the collateral be deposited before signing off on the release, or at least an order to the jail requiring the proof of such deposit before release was authorized.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 22, 2010 1:53:20 PM

This is the latest in series of Philadelphia Inquirer articles which exposed a corrupt, defendant-centered, defense bar-driven, local criminal justice system. Some reforms are underway but the pace and extent of the reforms are marginal.

Posted by: mjs | Nov 22, 2010 4:33:09 PM

Here's the key paragraph:

"A pioneering New Jersey program found that if judges were willing to threaten to imprison defendants for nonpayment, offenders indeed made 'significantly more and larger payments,' according to a report on the effort by David Weisburd, a University of Maryland criminologist."

Looks like the credible threat of becoming part of "incarceration nation" significantly helps things along. Imagine that.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 22, 2010 5:19:23 PM

Soronel, here in Indiana, we began aggressively seeking forfeiture of bonds. What was happening was that defendants (including those known to be illegal immigrants) would fail to appear, a warrant would be issued, and then a few months later, the bondman would file a motion to be released from the surety, which the judge would summarily without a hearing.

Under state statute, half the money that is forfeited from bonds goes to the policeman's pension fund, the other half goes to the school fund. In record time, the bondsman got the statute changed to make it much more difficult to forfeit bonds.

Want to guess who the top contender to legislators and judges are here? Yep, bondsmen.

Posted by: josh | Nov 22, 2010 6:47:44 PM

More magical thinking from conservatives (as identified by their ostentatiously tough-on-crime salvos and bromides).

Never mind that most ex-cons don't pay restitution because they're broke. It's that simple.

For those who haven't noticed, we're in a great recession. Even law-abiding folks with college degrees can't find work. Ex-cons typically don't do well in a good job market.

Garnishee their meager earnings and their dependents will be more likely to turn to public assistance.

Threaten them with debtors prison and the burden will shift to their friends and relatives capable of ransoming their loved ones' freedom. Actually putting them in debtors prison would insure their inability to pay while shifting the cost of their personal care and feeding to taxpayers.

Moreover, dunning hundreds of thousands of destitute excons for as long as they live isn't cheap either.

Face it, restitution-without-regard-for-ability-to-pay is mostly an opportunity to layer on additional punishment -- similar in some respects to the flaming hoops sex offenders must jump through for the rest of their lives after they've done their time.

Posted by: John K | Nov 23, 2010 8:29:22 AM

i'm with you john. demanding individuals that make minimum wage IF they are lucky enough to get a job...is the high of deliberate CRIMINAL STUPIDITY!.

Could also be considered a DELIBERATE attempt to create a slave class in this country that takes us back to the 1800's and the good old "company store" era!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 23, 2010 1:09:46 PM

John K --

When you intentionally injure or steal from someone, you make it up to them.

I would have thought this baseline proposition to be beyond serious dispute.

It is not up to the system to figure out how you're going to do this. It is up to you.

You have a really hard time figuring out that it's not thief who's the victim, it the person whose property the thief stole and to whom he owes it back under the most fundamental theory of justice it is possible to imagine.

But not to you. The thief gets to keep it, and the victim gets left holding the bag, filled only with your inexplicable contempt.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 23, 2010 9:39:20 PM

There has to be a strict implementation of fines on convicted criminals. This is a good source of funds for many of the finances the institution can have. This is a problem of many jails. What we have to do is go after these criminals.

Posted by: contemporary water feature | Nov 24, 2010 3:00:34 AM

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