Countless crime victims are being cheated out of restitution money in Santa Clara County, according to a new Civil Grand Jury report.
Lax oversight and weak enforcement have allowed convicted criminals to skirt around court-ordered restitution demands, leaving their victims with little to none of the money entitled to them under state law. Victims who suffered losses from a crime often have to hire private attorneys to track down what’s owed, when the county should be able to do that for them, jurors said.
“The grand jury recognizes that some criminals lack the ability to pay restitution,” the report says. “However, the … investigation revealed that various agencies in the system accept too readily a criminal’s claimed inability to pay without substantial justification.”
In the audit finalized in June, jurors slammed the District Attorney’s office and the departments of probation, corrections and revenue collections for a lack of “sufficient oversight,” adding that “little has been done” since a 2004 grand jury found similar problems.
The panel found that the Department of Revenue routinely let down victims by failing to collect money owed by their offenders.
“If the victim does not get paid in full by the end of the criminal’s probation, there is rarely a consequence for the criminal who has not paid the victim restitution in full,” the report says.
Meanwhile, victims are met with little sympathy when they call to ask about the standing of their account. And no one informed them that they have the option of pursuing a civil suit.
“Lest we forget, there is a human side to this victim restitution process,” the report states. “One victim told the grand jury that when she called the DOR to complain about the small amount of victim restitution being paid to her, an employee’s response was that she should be thankful that she was getting any check at all, and that there was nothing they could do to help her.”
Instead of recruiting help from private collection agencies because they skim a 15 percent commission off the top of what they collect, the DOR has opted to handle difficult cases on its own—but with little success.
“It seems likely to the grand jury that many victims would rather have 85 percent of something collected by a private agency than 100 percent of nothing collected by the DOR,” the audit continues.
The DOR claims it’s a collection agency but it makes little effort to collect anything. It’s really just a passive billing agency, jurors determined.
The county should “aggressively ascertain the criminal’s ability to pay” and consider delinquency grounds for a probation violation, jurors said. For jailed offenders, the county ought to deduct cash from their personal accounts, which friends and family pay into from the outside since there are no work assignments at the Main Jail or Elmwood Correctional Facility.
Sometimes the money is collected but never claimed by the victims. In 2011, $418,539 of unclaimed cash went back to the DA’s office, where it paid for paralegals to work on victim restitution cases.
A watchdog group set up by the Board of Supervisors a decade ago has done little to help. When the Victim Restitution Committee meets, they spend an hour in a “roundtable discussion” with little structure and a light agenda. The group has achieved no measurable accomplishments in the past seven years, the grand jury says.
Jurors chose to investigate the restitution system after a victim tipped them off to their case, in which she and several other victims were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a criminal. A judge ordered the convict to pay $1,000 a month to each victim for three years. But the checks coming in were only around $100, so the victims wound up hiring a private lawyer to get the rest.
Read the entire report here.
The local glitches are part of a statewide problem. A 2013 ABC7 news report found that millions of dollars go unclaimed because counties fail to forward victim contact information to the state office that collects restitution.