Setting the Framework for Restitution
As a first step to increasing the collection of restitution, agencies must commit themselves to improvement. There must be a culture of agency accountability and support for collections.
National organizations are leading the way:
The American Probation and Parole Association issued a position paper on Offender Accountability for Victim Restitution.
Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments issued Sentencing, Corrections and Public Safety: Guiding Principles for Crime Victims and Survivors in America, which includes the importance of offender compliance with restitution orders.
Components of the Framework
Identifying the intended goals of restitution
A framework for improving restitution should articulate the societal and individual value of restitution to the criminal justice system. Keeping a focus on the goals of restitution is essential for creating and maintaining legitimate, effective, non-contradictory, and just practices.
Restorative Justice Online provides examples of the theoretical purposes of restitution, and notes that restitution has traditionally been intended as a rehabilitative process for everyone involved because it requires an offender to acknowledge that they wronged the victim, and to become productive members of society so that they can restore the victim’s loss.
The Restitution in Pennsylvania Task Force’s 2013 Final Report states that restitution is valued for its purposes of compensating victims for their losses, and punishing and rehabilitating defendants, and then details 47 recommendations for accomplishing those purposes.
Incorporating restitution collection into the agency mission statement.
Incorporating the collection of victim restitution into an agency's mission statement can help to align policies and processes to its implementation. We've collected several mission statements as examples.
Issuing a clear directive to courts.
Because restitution orders are issued by judges, and often collected by court employees, a clear directive to court personnel setting a tone of commitment to collections can have a powerful effect.
The Michigan Supreme Court, as part of its effort to improve collection, issued an administrative order to establish and require compliance with collections requirements. In that order, the court stated "Enforcing court orders, including financial sanctions, is a responsibility of the courts that, if done effectively, enhances the courts' integrity and credibility while providing funds to assure victims are made whole and support law enforcement, libraries, the crime victims' rights fund, and local governments."
Florida's 9th Circuit provides a local example. In 2009, the Chief Justice issued an administrative order setting out procedures for the collections court program.
California published a revised Restitution Benchguide in 2014 which can be used as a model for aiding judges in their efforts to apply the law.
The California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board also helps court personnel in enforcing restitution by publishing Quick Reference Sheets for Adult Restitution Orders and Fines, and Juvenile Restitution Orders and Fines.
Setting benchmarks for collection.
As the Conference of State Court Administrators observed in a 2008 white paper, "The assessment of court performance serves as a basis for organizational change and as a means for continuous improvement of court operations and programs."
The National Center for State Courts has led the way in helping courts implement performance measures, through the development of CourTools, a set of balanced and realistic performance measures that are practical to implement and use. Among the 10 performance measures is Measurement 7: Collection of Monetary Penalties. NCSC also provides an accompanying analysis template in Excel.
Maricopa County's Adult Probation Department provides an example of setting benchmarks for restitution, as part of its 2011 Strategic Plan.
Multnomah County, Oregon, provides an example of a local program measuring its collection performance and making that information public.
Enabling collection improvements
Setting performance benchmarks for courts may reveal that some localities are better equipped than others to improve and maintain certain operations and programs. Economies of scale predict that it is more costly for smaller courts with fewer cases to have extensive collections services than for larger courts.
California tries to minimize the burden on individual counties and municipalities of making costly improvements. This 2013 report by the California Judicial Council explains how California’s Intra-Branch Collection Services Program allows smaller courts with limited resources to use the collection services of larger courts.
Oregon’s Central Services Unit reduces the burden of mandated collection improvements on individual courts by centralizing court accounting and collections. This approach, implemented in 2010, has led to greater efficiencies and reduced errors.
Eliminating legal loopholes
In their commitment to making restitution real for victims, some states are rigorously assessing potential legal loopholes for improvements.
For example, Colorado’s Governor signed HB 14-1035 into law in March, 2014, clarifying that if a defendant fulfills the requirements of a deferred sentence and the sentence is dismissed, any unpaid restitution becomes a final civil judgment which must be paid in full.
Dedicating personnel to collections.
The use of dedicated staff can be key to improving financial compliance. For example, the award winning Financial Compliance Unit in Maricopa County's Adult Probation Department employs 14 full-time collectors. Those officers review individuals' assets and obligations at the first probation contact, set up payment plans, and hold offenders accountable. In 2013 the Financial Compliance Unit collected 11% of the county's court-ordered sanctions.
Similarly, Colorado credits its increased collections to the creation of a Court Collections Investigator program. Collections investigators meet with defendants to problem solve to promote payment of restitution and other court debt, gather information about the offender's ability pay, and work to establish short, workable payment plans.
Ongoing training and support for those doing collections work can increase dedication and lessen fatigue. For example, Maricopa County holds monthly meetings of collections personnel.
Michigan's Court Collections Program Requirements (Component 1) include the dedication of staff to collections activities. They provide details to implement that recommendation, including the duties of such staff.
Even within a single office, the dedication of personnel to collections can be important.
Limiting framework inefficiencies and inconsistencies
Good intentions, standards, resources, and dedicated personnel can all be wasted if systems are inefficient or contradict each other. An important step in increasing restitution collection is assessing where these problems may lie, and then taking steps to address them.
The Pennsylvania Office of the Victim Advocate’s office convened a Restitution in Pennsylvania Task Force in 2013 to address their low rates of restitution collection. The Final Report identifies key areas of inefficiency and inconsistency and makes recommendations including the needs for: a standardized restitution order, a standard identifier of offenders across agencies, improved information-sharing capacities, and a system that places offenders on a single payment plan.
The Council of State Governments (CSG) published “Repaying Debts” in 2007, recommending that governments should identify their state and local policies and practices for court collections so that they could make systemic improvements. The CSG recommends organizing this information in reports, case studies, and diagrams showing the functions of agencies and their relationships to each other.
Communicating collection practices
Some states, such as California and Texas, have associations for their collections representatives from city, county, and state governments. The associations function as forums for these collectors and revenue officers to discuss and improve debt collection and enforcement. Members share ideas and resources, and keep on top of the most recent legislation and practices in their states.
Organizations trying to enhance their information sharing practices can join organizations such as the Justice Information Sharing Practitioners Network which provides a forum for state and local government information sharing practitioners, opportunities for giving and receiving feedback on policies and standards, and access to trainings, events, news, and information.
Another useful resource is the Government Revenue Collection Association which allows revenue collectors from all levels of government to share ideas, best practices, and resources for improving collections of outstanding debt owed to the government. Their “Improving Collections” page includes sections on correspondence strategies, collection technology, collection agencies, training techniques, and tips on finding and retaining collections staff.