Prisoners help defray the costs of their crimes

Money is tight and times are tough but at least one outfit has money to give away – and is looking for the right people to give it to.

Among the duties of a small section of the state prison system called the Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services is to make sure that court-ordered restitution gets to the victims of crime. When an inmate is sentenced, typically the judge also orders restitution to be paid by the defendant.  

About two-thirds of California’s prisoners who work have money deducted from the pay they get for doing prison jobs. About $1.7 million is collected each month and is intended to provide compensation for some 50,000 victims of crime. The total fund currently is about $12 million, down from about $13 million two years ago. Since 1991, the fund has handled some $200 million in restitution. The department also collects restitution for a separate board, the Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board, which compensates victims who file claims.

But giving money away isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The victims may not be readily identifiable, the court records may be incomplete or unavailable and the victims may have moved, among other problems. Many victims fear retribution from the offenders; and counties balk at giving address information to the courts, in part because public court records may be accessed by potential stalkers.

“They scrupulously avoid putting address information in the documents because many victims are afraid,” says Terry Boehme, who just retired after a 42-year state career that included managing Corrections’ 14-member restitution unit, five of them investigators who seek out the victims.

Getting money to the victims offers satisfaction, he added.

“The victims who receive even a partial payment are often times surprised and almost always very happy that the state did not abandon them, that the state went to bat for them and took some action to try and ameliorate their condition,” he added.

For Michael Rogowski, who analyzes restitution issues in Boehme’s office, “this job is very challenging, and the most rewarding position that I have ever had.”

The comments from compensated crime victims, collected by Rogowski, tell their own story.

“Thank you for contacting me and letting me know that restitution was collected on my behalf.  I was molested as a child, and now I’m 22 years old and going to college.  I will use this money to buy books and pay tuition.  Sure glad your organization exists,” one wrote.

“My father was shot in the head seven years ago for being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” another wrote. “After all these years, you mean you collected my restitution in full? Your organization is very helpful, and for that I appreciate your service and assistance today. You are a kind man.”

For a third, dealing with the restitution office offered a sort of therapy. “For years I was losing myself in grief.  After speaking with you today, and telling me about my restitution – I no longer feel as depressed and confused anymore.  I totally forgot about what was owed to me, because it happened so long ago.  Thank you for calling and listening to me.”

Nobody ever got rich being compensated for the losses caused by a criminal. But the state is implacable in running down the money. For those behind bars, the Corrections Department deducts the restitution money from their pay – a flat 50 percent. For those on the outside, the Franchise Tax Board enforces collections, up to and including garnishing wages and tapping refunds.

“If you have to take into account a situation that if you get caught you will be pursued for the rest of your life by the FTB for the full amount of damages, it adds up to deterrence,” Boehme said.

In Sacramento County, with some 1,794 victims, with a total of about $500,000 in restitution, one victim received more than $8,000 and seven received between $2,000 and $8,000.  Nearly two-thirds of the victims received less than $100.

He said his biggest single payment was $300,000 to the victims of a lady who printed fraudulent airline tickets and sold them to unsuspecting travelers. A number of other payments of $50,000 and $25,000 each went to people or companies victimized by embezzlers.

The Corrections unit is different than the state’s Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board, which has been providing funds to crime victims for more than 45 years.  Since 1965, the program has dispensed about $2 billion.

Unlike the restitutions unit, the board does not operate by judicial orders but responds to applications from the victims themselves. The board gets a 60-40 mix of state-federal funds, some from inmates’ payments and some from federal compensation programs.

In the 2009-10 fiscal year, some 57,254 applications were received, and 49,979 were approved with an average payment of $1,932. To qualify for the money, crime victims must demonstrate financial losses, directly out-of-pocket, or otherwise – criteria that are spelled out in the statute that created the program. If victims obtain compensation elsewhere – through insurance, for example – they cannot receive CalVCP money for the same loss.

About 2,000 applications were rejected, and the remainder – about 6,000 – had not yet been decided. The total payout in 2009-10 was about $96.5 million. In the latest fiscal year, based on the first-quarter numbers, the CalVCP may pay out more than $100 million, which would be a record.

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