updated 4/23/2004 6:06:21 PM ET 2004-04-23T22:06:21

An investigation has identified $25 billion in fines and other payments the Justice Department has failed to collect from criminals, almost double the amount auditors counted three years ago, the General Accounting Office reported Friday.

In a follow-up of GAO’s 2001 findings, which cited uncollected debts and offered ideas for the Justice Department to improve collection, the congressional investigators chided the department for failing to take their recommendations to heart.

One main suggestion was that the Justice and Treasury departments, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Office of Management and Budget work together to develop a plan to manage, account for and report criminal debt. As of December, Justice had not worked with the others to develop a plan.

GAO also had offered the department 13 interim recommendations in 2001 to help collect debt while a long-term strategic plan was under development. Since July 2001, Justice has completed only seven, the report said. The GAO said it was told Justice is acting to deal with the remaining six are in progress.

96 cents on the dollar not collected
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who ordered the report, criticized the government for collecting just four cents of every dollar in fines and assessments of restitution it levies against convicted criminals, leaving 96 cents of each federal fine dollar uncollected.

“This is unbelievable,” he said. “Fines and orders to pay restitution are an important part of how we punish convicted criminals. When so little effort is made to collect that money, we allow convicted criminals to avoid punishment for their crimes, weaken our criminal justice system and ultimately deny justice to the victims of crimes.”

Outstanding criminal debt increased from $6 billion in September 1995 to more than $13 billion four years later, the GAO said.

The increase has been a trend that began in 1996, the GAO said. A major factor leading to the increase is a mandate that requires assessment of restitution regardless of the offender’s ability to pay.

The government collected about seven cents of every dollar in the last half of the 1990s, the GAO found.

Factors work against collection
Two-thirds or more of criminal debt in the latest years studied by the GAO was related to white-collar financial fraud.

Some factors beyond Justice’s or probation offices’ control contributed to the significant growth in reported uncollected criminal debt. Some debt involved criminals who have been deported, or have little ability to earn money. Also, state laws may limit the type of property that can be seized and the amount of wages that can be garnisheed.

While the department has made some progress responding to GAO’s 2001 recommendations, it has acted slowly, the study said.

The Justice Department replied to the report that the GAO did not fully recognize its progress toward improving the situation.

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