MOUNT VERNON — It is common for someone who has been convicted of a crime — that involves a financial loss to the victim — to be ordered to pay restitution. But how does this work? Who is in charge of keeping track of the payment of restitution and how is it collected?
Common Pleas Court Judge Otho Eyster took time to explain to the News how the process works in Common Pleas Court.
“If the defendant goes to prison, I’ll be honest, the restitution is never recovered,” Esyter explained. “If they had a job they’ve lost it and when they get out they have nothing. But it stays on the books.”
Eyster explained that if the person is put on a community control sanction — what used to be called probation — the court can monitor that.
“We can see to it that it’s collected,” he added. “That’s the condition of their release, a condition of their community control. We’ve got a diversion program where it’s an absolute requirement to complete the program that restitution be made. So it really depends on what the sentence of the court is. Restitution is recovered almost every time in a diversion program. Very few people don’t complete that.
“If there is a three-year term of community control we will almost always collect some of it. Sometimes we don’t get all of it because their community control expires before it’s all paid off.”
Eyster added that in every instance of ordered restitution, the victim has the option of civil remedies. That is, the victim can sue the offender. But he added that in most of those cases, the defendant doesn’t have any assets so collection is not guaranteed.
Many times, however, it can be a small amount. If it involves a burglary and a TV is stolen, for example, the offender will be required to make restitution of the TV or whatever else is stolen. The big problem arises when large amounts of money are stolen, such as in an embezzlement.
“A lot of restitution is covered by insurance,” Eyster added. “So the restitution winds up being owed to the insurance company.”
The process in Municipal Court works in a similar fashion. However, according to Mount Vernon Municipal Judge Paul Spurgeon, that court has a little more success in making sure restitution is paid simply because the dollar amounts are smaller, in general, than in Common Pleas Court.
“We get a lot of things like bad check cases,” Spurgeon said. “Somebody goes to (a store) and writes a check for $38. That’s an issue if they make good on the check that’s important on how we proceed with sentencing. We have pretty good success with people paying off small amounts like that.”
Spurgeon said there are some difficult cases such as someone injuring another person and causing the victim to incur medical costs. These involve much higher costs and the accused does not have the resources to make full restitution.
“We have more trouble collecting on that,” Spurgeon explained. “That does not go through the city’s money. We just monitor the situation. We try to collect some there when we can though. Most people can come up with $40 but not $1,000.”
Spurgeon said there are some cases where someone might have written a series of small bad checks. That money is given to the probation officer who will forward it to whoever the money is owed to. If there are several to whom the money is owed, it goes to the next one on the list.
There is no hard and fast rule that Spurgeon uses to determine whether someone is likely to be able to pay restitution.
“Getting people to make a commitment (to pay restitution) is important,” he explained. “If they have given up then they are not even going to try. I wish we could do more and collect money. But it’s a value judgment and I have to look at them and say are they really being defiant or are they poor. I don’t want to put anybody in jail because they are poor. It’s not easy. We try to work with the victims and see what we can do.”