Report Blasts County over Crime Victim Restitution

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.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

5 Comments

  1. This is pretty sad. The Office of Human Relations had a pretty successful Victim Offender Program that helped get restitution for victims. I’m curious as to what happened to it.

    In my personal opinion, the County and the Board of Supervisors spend more money and time working to help offenders than victims. This really needs to change.

  2. Too bad this is surprising as a tornado in Kansas. Every failed audit is followed by another failed audit. Executive Smith is only interested in VMC and EPIC and loves to micromanage them. Everything else swept under the rug by his army of yes men who know that Grand Jury and Harvey Rose never follow through. If employees complain their career is over. The board of supervisors are too busy pontificating to rock the boat. The Mercury never reports on anything county and the public gets screwed.

    • Hey, butterfly–neither the Grand Jury nor Harvey Rose have any enforcement authority with which to follow through .

      • True, but I have seen agency heads flat out lie to the BOS about implementing findings. Nobody, nobody ever doublecheck to see if these any changes are ever made.

  3. Yah I still haven’t gotten restitution for case #C1115958 where I was assulted. On the bright side, the council voted away my attackers right to do business here. Maybe him and his ilk will go back to “tough guy NYC” and leave this business to the peace loving hippies that started here.

    And shame on Perry Woodward for defending the guy. Seriously man, someone as highfalutin as you shouldn’t have even set foot on that case.