Answer Man: Who enforces payment of restitution to victims?

Q: Once a defendant is released from prison, who enforces payment of restitution to victims?

A: Houston County Circuit Clerk Carla Woodall said if a defendant falls more than 90 days behind in paying restitution, her office files a delinquency report and turns it over to the district attorney’s office.

“They file what’s called a show cause motion for a defendant to show cause why they have stopped making payments,” she said.

At that point, the clerk’s office assesses 30% of the balance of the defendant’s case.

A court date is set and the defendant is brought before a judge. If the defendant can show a valid reason for missing the payments, the judge can drop the penalty.

“It’s on a case-by-case basis, based upon the circumstances,” Woodall said. “We do whatever the judge tells us to do.”

The circuit clerk’s office collects restitution and other payments in district and circuit court cases. Woodall said between $11 and $12 million in payments such as restitution, court costs, fines and civil filing fees are processed through her office every year.

Restitution in criminal cases is where the court orders a defendant to compensate victims for losses suffered as a result of the crime.

Restitution can be in addition to other punishments such as a fine, prison time, community service, and/or probation.

Before a defendant is sentenced, the district attorney’s office gathers information on the victims’ losses and presents it to the defendant’s attorney. They agree on an amount and present it to the judge for approval.

“If a defendant is granted probation, at the probation time they are then also set up on a payment plan,” Woodall said.

The terms and conditions of probation require defendants to work if they are able. Woodall said the payment plan is based on the defendant’s ability to pay.

“When a person is released from prison, they are given a copy of what is owed to the court and the Department of Corrections tells them they must contact the clerk’s office to set up a payment plan,” Woodall said. “The Department of Corrections also notifies us at the clerk’s office the day that they are released, so when we get that notification we turn that fee sheet to an active status and put a due date out of 90 days usually.”

Monthly payment amounts vary from case to case. Woodall said the standard for Judge Larry Anderson, presiding judge for the 20th Judicial Circuit for Henry and Houston counties, is “nothing below $100 a month.”

When a defendant starts making payments, everything on the payment list is assigned a priority number. Restitution is given the top status, Woodall said.

For instance, if a defendant has been ordered to pay $500 in court costs and fines and $1,000 in restitution, restitution is collected first.

If restitution is owed to more than one victim, each victim receives a pro rata share based on his or her portion of the total.

If the total is $1,000 and one victim is owed $600 and the other $400, one would receive 60% of a payment and the other 40%.

If a defendant has been ordered to pay a large amount, victims may receive only a fraction of what is owed. When restitution is paid up in a case, payments go to the next party on the list.

Collecting restitution and paying it to victims is not always easy. A defendant might stop making payments after losing a job.

“Most of the time when the defendants stop paying they don’t contact us,” Woodall said.

If a defendant has served a large amount of time in prison, it can be difficult to find victims who have married, moved or died.

“I spend a great deal of time researching to look for victims,” Woodall said.

If a check comes back to the clerk’s office, the office holds it while trying to track down the recipient. After five years it’s sent to the county as unclaimed funds.

If a victim has died, restitution can be paid to beneficiaries according to the victim’s will.

Woodall said people who are owed restitution should call the circuit clerk’s office to provide current contact information.

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