New Castle News

District Judges

February 22, 2013

Our Opinion: Having criminals pay what they owe can be difficult process

NEW CASTLE — Two stories last week in the New Castle News offered contrasting views regarding criminal restitution.

And to a large extent, both accounts are accurate.

One came courtesy of an Associated Press report out of Harrisburg, outlining a state task force report on a massive backlog of restitution payments.

That report found that $780 million in restitution is owed throughout the commonwealth. In Lawrence County, that figure stands at nearly $19 million.

The task force’s main finding was that more can be done to collect this restitution. It recommended a variety of steps for doing so, ranging from attaching the wages of people who owe money to taking any lottery winnings that come their way.

The report made the possible solutions sound practical and methodical. Implementing them, and beefing up collections, ought to be a straightforward matter.

Not so fast. A somewhat different take on this problem emerged in another article in The News the same day, that included an interview with Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto. He sees restitution from a different perspective.

First, Motto pointed out, the nearly $19 million owed in the county goes back for generations. Much of this amount is tied to people who are dead.

But more practically, Motto noted that when it comes to paying restitution, many of the individuals in the court system have little capacity for doing so. They either have no income, or their incomes are so low that making payments poses real difficulties. In many instances, these individuals are drug users who can’t obtain regular employment.

The state task force wants to designate more resources toward pressuring these individuals to pay up, regardless of their incomes. But this raises the question of whether the state and counties would spend more in the collection process than would be gained in return.

Ideally, every dollar sought in restitution through the state court system would be collected. But realistically, that’s not going to happen.

However, we agree with the task force that every reasonable effort should be made to collect restitution. This money is owed to the victims of crime, not the government. A system that leaves victims who await restitution hanging and without satisfaction effectively victimizes them again.

We think there’s a social value — beyond the monetary one — of reminding perpetrators of crimes that they have wronged someone by insisting they make restitution. And those who have lost something gain more respect for the system when they see an honest attempt is being made to restore what was taken.

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