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States step up demands to collect restitution

A nationwide examination shows unpaid court-ordered restitution has cost states  billions of dollars, and many states make little effort to go after whatever money is available. That is changing in some places.
Restitution Charade
The St. Paul United Methodist Church, shown in Chambersburg, Pa., Dec. 7, was rebuilt after it burned to the ground 13 years ago. Jeffrey A. Byington, who pleaded guilty to burglary, served a decade in prison for his role in the arson fire but remains far from paying off what is the state's fifth-largest restitution order.Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

There is no central database that can put a total price tag on unpaid court-ordered restitution in all 50 states. However, a nationwide examination by The AP shows it is clearly many billions of dollars.

Often, the problem is that restitution orders are purely symbolic, the amounts so big that many defendants can't possibly pay up. But it is also the case that many states make little effort to go after whatever money is available.

"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," said Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham.

Forcing defendants to pay up
That is changing in some places. Many states have begun taking steps to force defendants to pay up. Some, like Arizona, are turning to outside collection agencies for help. Others, such as Pennsylvania and Colorado, are ratcheting up their own in-house collection efforts.

"There was a culture in Arizona that you can blow off paying money to the courts in some areas because they aren't going to do anything about it. So that's the first thing we set about to change," said Michael DiMarco, consolidated collections manager for Arizona's courts.

The amount of unpaid court costs, fines, fees and restitution in Arizona 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, DiMarco said.

Missouri and Minnesota also use Affiliated, which duns people by mail and phone and keeps a percentage of whatever it collects.

"We have cases going back to 1984 that people are paying on, simply because somebody finally came and said, 'You owe money,'" DiMarco said.

In addition, Arizona feeds information from its court system computers to other state agencies, and they use it intercept deadbeats' state income tax refunds and prevent them from registering their vehicles until they pay up.

Variety of new tactics
Other states have taken a variety of approaches.

Pennsylvania is using a new computer network to help counties customize payment plans, track overdue payments and generate delinquency letters. Unpaid fees, fines and restitution in Pennsylvania stand at a whopping $1.55 billion, according to the first-ever statewide estimate, obtained by the AP after it asked the state to run a query through the computer system.

Kansas gives victims access to defendants' personal financial information. Florida imposes an income deduction order when restitution is part of the sentence. Tennessee claims a portion of the proceeds from the sale of inmate arts and crafts. Kentucky extends parole until restitution is fully paid.

Colorado has developed an aggressive in-house system with about 100 collection investigators who begin working with offenders on repayment right away. It has doubled restitution collections in the past decade to $25 million.

"There's a fairly widespread misconception that, as a victim, you may get restitution ordered, but you're never going to see any of it," said Paul Litschewski, financial services manager with the Colorado Judicial Department. "But that's not what we're finding."

Payments lag in priorities
Across the country, a lot of the money 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 payment often falls behind other priorities, such as trying to keep released criminals employed, drug-free and out of jail. To many judges, jailing people for nonpayment smacks of debtor's prison.

Ed Katz, financial resource coordinator for the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Services, suggested the state deduct money from offenders' wages from the moment they are sentenced, place liens on cars or divert their tax refunds.

Katz said some repayment amounts ordered by judges are so small as to be meaningless: "I sure couldn't get a loan where I had to pay back $25 a month with no interest and have 46 years to pay it back."

A decade-old Pennsylvania law requires the prison system to collect 20 percent a month from inmates' account balances. It produced a tiny amount from Jeffrey A. Byington's time behind bars for destroying the church in Chambersburg.

Church member Ken Plummer Jr. said St. Paul's was under no illusion that Byington, now behind bars in Maine for sex crimes, would be much help.

"The idea of restitution," Plummer said, "was simply symbolic."