The California law that eases prison overcrowding by shifting responsibility for thousands of lower-level felons to county jails has made it much harder for certain crime victims to collect restitution from inmates.
The state’s 33 adult prisons have a seamless system for siphoning 50 percent of the money out of an inmate’s prison account – money earned from a prison job or deposited by friends and family – to pay victims for their losses.
But under the 2011 criminal justice realignment law, thousands of non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent convicts are now serving their sentences in county jails. Those jails do not have in-custody work programs and are not set up to collect restitution.
In addition, counties did not even have the legal authority under the prison realignment law to collect from inmates until several months ago. Most are now scrambling to sort out who will collect the money and how.
Those sentenced to county jail under realignment are lower-level felons less likely to owe restitution, but sentences for crimes that involve fraud, property damage or injuries caused by drunken driving, for example, often include court-ordered payments to victims. Many of those victims are not receiving restitution or are being advised to collect on their own by seeking a lien against their offenders in civil court.
Victims’ advocates say the situation grew out of a critical oversight when lawmakers and the governor’s office wrote the realignment law. They complain they were left out of discussions that could have resulted in better protection of victims’ rights.
“We weren’t at the table. We talked about notification, we talked about restitution and all the victims’ rights that pertain to realignment, and it just wasn’t addressed,” said Cindy Marie Absey, the director of victim and witness services at the San Luis Obispo District Attorney’s Office.
“Justice has two sides. It’s not in balance until victims’ rights are upheld,” she said.
Some advocates also worry about the long-term effect on a state restitution fund made up of fines collected from convicted criminals. Fines ranging from $280 to $10,000 go into a pot that’s used to reimburse those affected by violent crimes.
The fund, administered by the Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board, paid nearly $70.5 million in the last fiscal year for medical bills, burials, counseling and other costs incurred by victims. It is stable for now but will be closely watched for any impact from realignment, said Julie Nauman, the board’s executive officer.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s office referred inquiries to the state prison system.
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said his agency collects $1.6 million in restitution payments each month and has not seen much change in that figure since realignment, when the department stopped collecting from lower-level convicts in county jails.
The state is working with counties to help them develop collections systems that mirror those in the prisons, said Cynthia Florez-DeLyon, assistant secretary in the Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services for the state prisons.
In many counties, she said, local probation departments will likely wind up collecting restitution from offenders after they are released – something that is already happening in some communities. Unpaid debt can be referred to the state Franchise Tax Board to be recovered through wage garnishment.
“We’re excited and we want to help,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for a very, very long time.”
Victim advocates within local district attorney’s offices, who first noticed the problem, acknowledge that it’s difficult to determine its scope. The law and its effect on restitution are so new that there are no statistics to show how many realigned inmates – the lower-level offenders now sentenced to county jails – owe money. It also is not clear how much money is currently going uncollected.
Sacramento County is one of the few to collect restitution from these offenders. Since June, it has collected about $100,000 from inmates representing about 8 percent of the lower-level convicts sent there instead of state prison.
Contra Costa County reports that about 10 to 15 percent of its offenders with restitution orders are inmates who previously would have gone to state prison and are not currently paying their debt to victims.
Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Lydia Bodin, head of the county’s restitution enhancement program, said her office receives several calls a week from victims who are struggling to collect. Her department is working to collect statistics, she said.
“They want to be made whole. When a crime occurs, it’s an economic event and this stuff can be very, very devastating,” she said. “They call here saying, `What can I do? What can I do?”
At first, county jails didn’t even have the authority under the realignment law to take prisoners’ money for restitution, a loophole that took more than a year to close. Fix-it legislation carried by state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, went into effect Jan. 1 and gives counties the authority to siphon money from offenders in local lock-ups.
There has been push-back, however, from sheriffs already struggling with overcrowding who don’t have programs in place to collect the restitution, said Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Ken Ryken.
“The issue, of course, is `How are you going to pay for it?”‘ he said. “They’re getting their restitution orders at sentencing, but they’re not getting assistance from the state in collecting it.”
Solano County Sheriff Tom Ferrara said collecting restitution doesn’t make financial sense for his jail, at least for now.
“If there’s anything I can do to get the victims their money, I’m going to do it, but the problem is I have to be able to do it in a cost-effective manner because I don’t have the money to do it,” Ferrara said.
Inmates doing time at the county level also are not likely to have much money because there are no in-custody work programs, he said.
“I can’t use $10 worth of county resources to get $2 worth of money,” Ferrara said.
Donna Howell has tried unsuccessfully to collect nearly $2,000 in restitution for her developmentally disabled son, who was taken in by a scam artist who stole hundreds of dollars and left behind overdraft fees and bounced checks.
The offender was sentenced to county jail under realignment, but Howell has been unable to collect a penny because the Tuolumne County jail doesn’t have a system in place to do so, she said.
Ginger Martin, the victim and witness services coordinator for the county’s district attorney’s office, confirmed that the Howells had not been able to collect.
Howell’s son, Eddie Howell, cannot read and write and is working three jobs washing dishes and collecting shopping carts to pay off his bills, she said. Not being able to collect has upset her son, who is 38 and struggles to live on his own.
“Most of the time, after he pays his bills, he’s broke. He doesn’t have a lot of money,” Donna Howell said. “He’s always struggling, but this just really put him down and out – and it’s depressing him, too.”
(Associated Press writer Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.)
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