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Restitution is a court-ordered payment made by the perpetrator of a crime to the victims of that crime. Restitution is meant to restore the crime victim financially to the point they were at prior to the crime. This article discusses what restitution is intended to do, who is eligible for restitution, how they receive it, and the challenges of receiving payment.

Crime Victims' Bill of Rights

Federal and state laws give crime victims a legal right to compensation for financial losses. These rights may be found in a state's "Crime Victim's Bill of Rights." They can vary from state to state. Minnesota's Crime Victim's Bill of Rights, for example, says that crime victims may:

  • Apply for reparations (financial compensation) for non-property losses related to a violent crime.
  • Request restitution from the offender as reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses directly related to the crime if the offender is convicted.
  • Ask the offender's probation officer to schedule a hearing if the offender fails to pay restitution.

Who Is Eligible for Restitution?

Victims of crime who can show financial losses are eligible to receive restitution in criminal cases. Judges often order restitution to be paid in cases where victims suffered some kind of financial setback as the result of the crime. For example:

  • A graffiti artist who spray-paints the side of a home may be ordered to reimburse the homeowners.
  • A robber who broke his victim's arm in a robbery may be ordered to compensate the victim for his medical expenses.

A crime victim can also seek money damages by suing the offender in civil court.

When Does a Judge Order Restitution?

The prosecutor will ask for crime victim compensation as part of the plea deal or sentence in a criminal case. It may also be added to a sentence as a result of the victim impact statement, which occurs at the time of sentencing. The victims and family members have an opportunity to explain to the judge how the crime has impacted them.

A criminal court judge will typically order restitution as part of an overall sentence that includes fines, jail or prison time, or probation. (Restitution differs from a fine in that it is paid to the victim of a crime. A fine is meant to punish an offender. It is paid to the government.) It is also possible for a sentence of restitution to be ordered on its own as an alternative sentence.

The judge may schedule a separate restitution hearing if the victim's costs are not yet fully known or if the defense claims the requested amount is too high. In some states, the judge can order restitution, the full amount of which will be determined at a later date. For example, if a victim suffered an extreme injury and may or may not regain full function, the cost of rehabilitation may not be known for some time.

How is Restitution Calculated?

The criminal court judge determines the amount of restitution the defendant will have to pay. Again, while states differ in how they calculate restitution, they usually factor in the direct cost of property damage, medical expenses (current and sometimes future), funeral expenses, counseling expenses for the victims, and lost income while the victim was recovering.

The prosecutor needs to know the victim's losses as a direct result of the crime. The victim can provide this information in the form of medical bills, receipts for repairs or replacement of items, information from employers documenting lost wages, or simply by testifying at a restitution hearing.

Restitution does not usually cover legal fees, although some states, like California, allow for recovery of "reasonable" attorneys' fees. The restitution amount also does not include pain and suffering or emotional distress.

What If There is a Plea Deal?

Crime victims have a legal right to request restitution for the losses they suffered as a result of a crime. If the defense is negotiating a plea deal with the prosecutor, it may include the payment of restitution as part of the deal. In some states, even if charges are dropped as part of a plea deal the perpetrator may be court-ordered to pay restitution.

How Are Restitution Payments Made?

The way that restitution is collected and disbursed may differ from state to state, but typically it will be payable through the court or probation department. The restitution payment schedule is usually monthly but it can be paid in a lump sum settlement.

An inmate trust account is created when an inmate enters prison. The inmate uses that account for deposits or withdrawals of money they earn from any jobs they hold while in prison. (These jobs pay very low wages.)

Money in the trust account is garnished to pay for court-ordered restitution and fines. It is also used by the inmate to make purchases for their personal needs. Because an inmate's account often has a minimal balance, it can take a very long time for victims to receive any substantial restitution.

When an inmate is released on probation or parole and begins earning more income, payments could increase. Regular restitution payments are often a court-ordered condition of probation.

What Type of Expenses Can Restitution Cover?

Once restitution payments have been made to victims, they can spend it any way they want. There is no requirement that it be spent for specific purposes. For example, if a carjacker wrecked a victim's car, that victim does not have to use court-ordered restitution to repair or replace the car. That may already have been done by the victim's insurance company. The victim can use it for something completely unrelated to the crime.

What Can a Victim Do If Restitution Isn't Paid?

States vary on the level of assistance they provide to crime victims. Many states have a victim compensation program that can help with payments if the perpetrator cannot pay. Victims might receive support from a crime victim services agency.

A crime victim can also contact their local District Attorney's office to report that payments are not being received. If restitution is a court-ordered condition of probation, non-payment is a probation violation. The offender may be ordered to find work in order to make payments or even sent back to jail or prison for willful defiance of the order to pay back the victims (which, ironically, would likely delay payments).

Some states allow unpaid orders of restitution to be converted to civil judgments. In California, for example, victims can then use the civil court system to collect on the debt. The civil court system may more options for ensuring payment; for example, the courts could garnish wages of offenders.

Learn More About Restitution. Talk to an Attorney

Restitution is a way for offenders to partially repay crime victims for their losses. If you were ordered to pay or receive restitution, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your state for restitution information.

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