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By Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 04 February 2010

When Janine Robben saw the results of a new audit of the state's victim's restitution system, she wasn't surprised. As a former prosecutor, she knew all too well that the state's restitution laws lacked the authority to adequately address the problem.
"When I was a prosecutor, I specialized in financial crimes," Robben told The Skanner News, who is now the executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Crime Victims Law Center. "I'd advocate for the defendant to get a lesser prison sentence so they could be out there making money and paying victims the money they owed them."
In Oregon, it is the responsibility of a local district attorney's office to investigate and facilitate a victim's restitution, if it is found that financial restitution is warranted. During a trial, it is up to the judge to order it.
In its audit of crime victims' restitution orders, the Oregon Secretary of State's office found that a significant number of victims are left uncompensated. According to the report, many victims are not compensated because they either didn't properly document losses or the district attorney's office failed to follow up with paperwork.
Of those cases with no restitution orders, auditors looked at 210 cases in Coos, Deschutes, Marion and Multnomah counties individually, and found that half of victims suffered no economic loss or were compensated in other ways. The other cases either provided no loss documentation or the DA's office didn't provide adequate paperwork.
Although it was not under the scope of the audit, Robben says the biggest problem lies beyond the restitution order. Many offenders don't ever pay back their court-ordered restitution.
"The victims we hear from got a restitution order but aren't getting any payments," she said.
Part of the problem with the current restitution system is an overworked parole and probation office. Those officers are in charge of enforcing an ex-offender's restitution payments, and the victim has limited options, outside of dealing directly with the officer, for getting their money back.
Don Hamilton, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, says the audit was limited in scope to see if district attorney's offices were doing their job.
"Very often, people committing crimes are generally not well-off enough to make good on restitution," Hamilton said. "It wasn't broadened (to include restitution payouts) because it would have made it much more complicated."
The report also doesn't report the demographics of victims that don't receive restitution. It is unclear if cultural issues, socioeconomic status, race or criminal history have any impact on whether a victim due restitution fails to request it.
The lack of connection with victims comes down to a "lack of resources." Some DAs aren't event bothering to try misdemeanor theft cases these days, due to lack of resources, according to the report.
"The sheer volume of restitution work precludes the ability to accomplish all of it given the current allocation of resources," says John Sewell, president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, in a letter to the auditor.
State auditors want DAs to set restitution rate expectations and monitor them, and have those same DAs evaluating their own restitution policies.
Sewell says setting those rates are impossible.
"District Attorneys cannot predict the number of crimes they will see in a given year or the severity of those crimes that would result in a restitution order," he said.
Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk, in his reply to the report, said that although "the rights of victims are as fundamental, essential and important as those of criminal defendants," legislators and voters never allocated additional resources to his office when requiring more responsibilities to victims.
"To take funds out of existing budgets (to implement the Attorney General's best practices for victim compensation) would mean that, by necessity, we would not be able to prosecute some low-level victim crimes," Schrunk said. "I do not want to do that."
The Oregon Attorney General's Office also provides assistance to victims through a number of programs designed to compensate them for medical losses, counseling sessions and lost work. Unlike restitution, the state compensation programs don't rely on finding a perpetrator.
A spokesperson from the AG's office says the other problem with restitution is victims can't get paid while the offender is in prison.


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