Iowa Offenders Pay a Fraction of Restitution Owed
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Despite more aggressive efforts to collect court-ordered debts, legal experts say most Iowa crime victims will never see all the money they are owed.
Iowa judges ordered arsonists, thieves, murderers and other convicted criminals to pay a combined $159 million in victim restitution over the past five years, according to data obtained by The Des Moines Register. Yet, offenders' payments during that time totaled only $19 million, or less than 12 percent of the new debts.
Legal experts say restitution is a key part of society's commitment to make victims whole and to get criminal offenders to face what they've done. Some critics are calling for better collections. Others call for a reality check, pointing out that the debts won't likely ever be paid in full.
State Court Administrator David Boyd said the total restitution owed to Iowa crime victims will continue to grow, because improved collections still can't keep pace with new debts.
"You've got people who are going to go to their grave with significant dollar amounts attached to them because they committed a crime," Boyd said.
Maj. Doug Riniker, who oversees a collection program for the Linn County Sheriff's Department, said his county was projected to pocket more than $600,000 in the recently ended budget year because of his office's efforts to collect old fines.
"Obviously, it eases the load on the taxpayers when we're able to bring in the amount that we do to the general fund," he said.
But Polk County Attorney John Sarcone argues that collections have to be reasonable.
"We're not out to kill people with these (payment) plans," he said. "We're not out to put somebody right back into the same thing they got out of."
Data from the Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice and Planning show Polk County judges consistently led the state in ordering criminals to pay restitution, requiring total payments of $3.5 million in 1,545 cases in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011.
The smallest annual total in a county during the period reviewed was the $454.49 ordered in five cases that went before Adams County judges in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009.
The data also show a wide range of restitutions paid statewide. In fiscal year 2011, money paid by Wright County criminals equaled just 1 percent of the $214,640 that judges ordered in new restitution. That same year, Jefferson County criminals paid an amount equal to 84 percent of the county's $363,776 in newly ordered restitution.
The amount of restitution ordered in 86 of Iowa's 99 counties was also more than double what was actually paid in each of the last five years.
By law, victim restitution is to be the state's first priority when it comes to collecting court-related debts. But government officials say it's also the most difficult place for authorities to find cash, because the worst offenders end up in prison and are unable to afford the debts.
Lawyers, lay people and system experts interviewed by the Register repeatedly quoted the same aphorism when discussing efforts to collect victim restitution: "You can't get blood out of a turnip."
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