Crime Victim Restitution:
Probation's Link to the Community

Jim Sinclair,
Assistant Director,
Community Supervision and Corrections Department,
Tarrant County

What a simple concept: a criminal offender placed on community supervision (probation) must pay the victim of his or her crime for losses sustained as a result of the crime. Now take that single concept and have it overlay a justice system featuring: multi-agency responsibilities for components of the restitution process and attendant communication issues; inaccurate assessment of victim loss; offenders' inability or unwillingness to pay court-ordered fees; the notion or tradition of crime victim restitution as an item of lesser priority among tasks competing for the probation officer's attention; and probation's general reluctance to become engaged with victims. What often results as a consequence of these and other system realities is a sense of lingering frustration on the part of crime victims and probation officers alike. Crime victims are angry and disappointed when restitution is not appropriately ordered, collected and disbursed, while probation officers grapple with the onerous chores of collecting money and trying to motivate offenders to fulfill court orders.

Far beyond the purview of this brief sketch are comprehensive and detailed approaches, strategies, and specific actions which can be undertaken to maximize the effectiveness of the restitution process. A few overarching concepts do, however, permeate the literature on crime victim restitution. For many years, the Community Supervision and Corrections Department of Tarrant County has sought to elevate the status of victims, because these people are primary constituents of probation and sometimes the only widely visible connection between a probation department and the community served is forged through victim restitution. Through consistent, stellar success may always prove elusive, given our playing field, the following tend to sum up nicely any worthwhile effort designed to champion the rights of crime victims through a responsive and conscientious restitution process:

Priority: Victim restitution should be publicly recognized as the priority payment expected from offenders. This caveat should also be formalized by inclusion in the agency's mission statement or policy and procedures manual. As we know, restitution usually has to compete with a host of other court-ordered fees payable by the offender. A department's official acknowledgment of restitution's importance greatly enhances crime victims' perception of a system responsive to their rights and needs.

Accountability: All criminal justice system partners in the restitution process must be accountable to one another and, most imperatively, to the crime victim. Problems with offender non-payment or late payment should be shared with the victim, within the confines of confidentiality dictates. Communication needs to flow freely from and to the prosecutor, court and probation department. Restitution is an area where it is most inappropriate to "pass the buck."

One more word on accountability to keep in mind: for victims, restitution takes on a significant symbolic value. The fact that the criminal justice system is holding an offender financially responsible tells victims that they are more than just cases or statistics. And even when the restitution payments themselves do not atone for loss or damage in a one-to-one ratio, victims most often are highly appreciative of the demand for payment imposed on the offender by the court.

Sanctions: Common sense suggests that offenders should face consequences for non-payment of court-ordered restitution to victims. Sometimes though, in the real world, that picture becomes muddied. Many offenders not only lack the financial resources for payment, but also come to probation undereducated, unemployed and with substance abuse problems. The probation officers supervising such individuals must creatively design strategies to eventually get the offender at the point of financial responsibility and self-sufficiency. And this does not happen overnight.

Courts should impose increasingly severe sanctions on offenders who won't, as opposed to can't, pay victim restitution. The message must be loud and clear that the offender has a personal responsibility to repair the harm caused by his or her criminal conduct.

Training: A key component to any successful restitution program, often overlooked, is comprehensive training at all levels for justice agencies who deal with this issue. Collecting money from offenders, even though court-ordered, does not resonate with line staff, absent the instillment of a sense of duty and personal commitment toward restoring the crime victim. Training helps guide staff to that place, because it helps make a connection between their job tasks regarding restitution and ultimate betterment of the community. There are a number of model curricula available nationally to assist agencies in their training efforts.

Automation: What can frustrate and anger a crime victim almost without equal is an agency's inability to convey accurate information concerning restitution: amounts owed, paid, arrears, check dates and the like. Since several justice entities share responsibility for restitution, there must be a means in place for these agencies to communicate electronically with each other and with the crime victim. Low-cost data solutions now abound which permit this rapid and accurate transmission of data.

Victim Involvement: Mentioned here last, but surely vitally important, is victim involvement in the restitution process. At a minimum, victims should be informed at the outset of probation of a restitution award and what can be expected at the outset of probation. Thereafter, regular communication is a key to victim satisfaction with the system's response in the case.

Beyond the individual cases, however, a strong argument is made for bringing victims into your department as volunteers and trainers. One of those "now I get it" moments occurs when a crime victim explains to line staff why restitution is so important in his or her case. Creation of a department-based victim advisory council allows the particular expertise and perspective of the crime victim to translate into informed victim-centered practices throughout the criminal justice agency.

There is, of course, no "one thing" we can do as justice practitioners to assure crime victims the rights, dignity and respect we owe them. But keep in mind that victim restitution is a powerful tool, on both the tangible and symbolic levels, assuring that the victim is regarded as an equal partner and constituent in the eyes of all who purport to do justice.