Restitution Issues and the Dallas Community Supervision and Corrections Department

Cindy Brignon
Dallas County Community Supervision and Corrections Department

The issue of restitution in the criminal justice system is not always just about the monetary figure for the victim; it is also a matter of the court system ensuring that offenders are being held accountable for their actions. The district attorney normally determines the amount of restitution to be ordered and to whom. The community supervision and corrections department must then take on the responsibility of collecting that restitution. However, it is not always an easy task to reconcile the offender's ability to pay with the victim's right to be reimbursed in a timely manner.

Restitution can be ordered for several different aspects of a crime, including loss or damage to property, medical care, counseling expenses, funeral and burial expenses and lost wages. The amount of restitution is usually determined at the beginning of the supervision term, but there are instances when the court needs additional time to decide on a final amount. If the amount is in dispute, the offender may request a restitution hearing. This may cause additional stress to the victim who wants and needs this process resolved, so it is essential that restitution be determined as quickly as possible. It is also important for the offender to be aware at the outset of his or her supervision term what will be expected in terms of financial obligations (including restitution) as lifestyle changes may need to be addressed to accomplish the goal of making these payments.

A common complaint from victims is the length of time it takes to be reimbursed by the offenders, even if payments are made on a timely basis. It is not unusual to hear statements such as, "It took him five minutes to steal my car. Why am I having to wait five years to be paid back?" It is very important to be able to explain to the complainant that the court must look at ability to pay when determining monthly payments in order for offenders to successfully complete probation while ensuring that victims are reimbursed for their losses. Additionally, if a motion to revoke supervision is filed and nonpayment is alleged, the court again must look at the issue of ability to pay. The supervising officer should document any pertinent information regarding ability to pay, as it may help the court in determining how to act on the issue of victims not being paid. Courts may have different polices in deciding when a violation report is to be done if restitution is not being paid, and the officer must adhere to that court's policy.

The Victim Services Coordinator of a community supervision department acts as liaison between the victim, the supervising officers and the court. Notifying a victim that the offender has been ordered to pay restitution and whom to call if he has questions regarding these payments is essential in helping the victim remain an important part of the supervision process. It provides an outlet for the victims to express concerns about monies due, to express the effects of their victimization, to be able to verify that a payment has been made, and to verify that offenders are or are not being held accountable for their actions. The liaison must be able to explain the supervision department's system of collecting and dispersing restitution, as well as court procedures that may be taken if payments are not being made.

Referrals can also be given to victims if restitution payments are delinquent, as they may need assistance to help them recover financially, emotionally and physically. The Crime Victims' Compensation (CVC) fund is an invaluable source for victims of assault-related offenses, and the victim services officer must make the availability of this fund known to those victims with whom they are having contact. If restitution for an assault-related offense is not being paid, the victim can request that payments be made by CVC. If this is approved and the offender begins paying at some point, the restitution can then be sent to the CVC program by the supervision department. The victim services officer should stay in contact with the program, as restitution is sometimes being paid to the victim when CVC has already reimbursed the victim or the service providers. When this occurs, with the permission of the court, payments should then be redirected to the Crime Victims' Compensation Fund. The victims should be notified of this change so they will understand that the offender is still being held accountable but that restitution should be sent to the fund that paid the loss or expenses. It is also helpful to explain to the victim that this fund needs to remain solvent so it will be available for other victims of violent crime.

The Victim Services officer should also take on the task of training other supervision officers in the importance of restitution to a victim and should "put a face" on the victim. Officers need to understand that a victim is not just being paid for a car that was stolen but that the crime has altered the victim's life. Transportation to work has been taken, the victim no longer has a way to get children to school, and a level of independence has been taken away, which can have a devastating impact both financially and emotionally. A victim may not just have his or her home burglarized but may have had items taken of a very personal nature that can never be replaced. The victim may no longer feel safe in his or her home and may now have extra expenses such as having to install an alarm system in their residence. The children also may have suffered emotionally as they have had their sense of security taken. When a supervision officer understands all the special emotions that are a part of a restitution obligation, it may make it easier to explain to the offender why they must make a good faith effort to make these payments. They know that offenders may have difficulty making payments as they have other bills to pay, but the victim also has bills and responsibilities. The victim's credit should not be put in jeopardy due to the offender's actions. Trying to find a balance between the two can be very difficult, but it is a challenge that the supervision department and the court must accept.

Restitution is an important step for an offender in taking responsibility for his or her actions. It is also a part of the recovery process for a victim. Supervision departments have a responsibility to keep the public safe as well as a responsibility to enforce the orders of the court. Failure to make a good faith effort to pay restitution to a victim should be treated as any other significant supervision violation and should be a priority in terms of helping the complainant not feel they are being re-victimized. Collection of restitution indicates offenders are facing the consequences of their actions and that the criminal justice system is being responsive to the trauma that crime victims must endure.