Officials question restitution system

State contracts private company to collect unpaid fees, fines

Louisiana agents collected such a paltry amount of restitution — 23 percent of the amount courts have ordered convicted criminals to repay their victims as a condition for staying out of prison — that state officials recently contracted a private company to do the work.

“That wasn’t the only reason,” said Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections. “But it was part of the reason.”

The state had been only modestly better at getting offenders convicted on criminal charges to pay court fees, collecting 43 percent assessed by judges.

In 2011 and 2012, the Corrections Department’s Division of Probation and Parole charted $121 million in supervision fees and restitution of which only $44 million was collected over the two-year period.

Before Fieldware LLC, of Chicago, took over collections in July, 511 probation and parole officers had spent about 27 percent of their time collecting court-ordered debts, LeBlanc said.

The main reason for contracting the work was to get probation and parole agents out of the business of collecting money and focusing more of their time on supervising convicts, LeBlanc said. An analysis by the state legislative auditor in December 2012 had criticized LeBlanc’s department for not making 22 percent of the required contacts in a sampling of maximum offenders.

The difficulty collecting exposes a consequence of years of Louisiana legislators piling “responsibility” requirements in terms of fees, fines and restitution onto offenders who, for the most part, were poor to begin with, said Derwyn Bunton, chief public defender for Orleans Parish. Depending on criminal defendants to fund the criminal justice system, a reliance that is unique to the rest of the country, is fraught with problems.

The amounts are too much for defendants to pay each month, he said, and the system for enforcement of collection hangs over them like a sword. Not paying could lead to a couple days in jail and eventually could lead to revocation of their parole, which means prison, he said. An alternative allows the court to extend the conditions of parole past the usual five years until the debt is repaid.

“My perspective on this continues to be that our dependence on fines, fees and costs in this state is not just out of line with the rest of country, but with reality,” Bunton said.

“I’m one of the folks who benefits,” Bunton said, referring to money raised by fees levied against offenders that are used to pay for the programs that provide lawyers for defendants who cannot afford to hire one. “But there needs to be some reform. The user-pay system is unpredictable, unreliable and inadequate.”

Restitution is where the court orders the offender to directly repay the victim for his losses.

State law lists 147 laws — including bank fraud, theft from an aged person, and injuring a police animal — that authorizes judges to order the offender to pay.

The courts also can order the payment of other fees, such as repayment of the costs that went into investigating the case and prosecuting it.

Theoretically, under state law, an offender can be ordered to pay the entire cost of the prosecution against him.

That is problematic because a large number, perhaps a majority, of the criminal defendants in this state are too poor to even hire a lawyer, much less pay $800 to $1,000 a month in fees and restitution, said Louisiana State Public Defender James T. Dixon Jr., of Baton Rouge.

“There’s no correlation between whether someone is found indigent for the purposes of being appointed a lawyer and whether someone is ordered to pay,” Dixon said. “Clearly we need to address problems about restitution and the inability to pay. You can see the logical breakdown.”

District Attorney Ricky Babin, of Donaldsonville, says prosecutors and judges, even state laws, are reluctant to imprison for not paying. Usually, when an offender’s parole is revoked, not paying is one of several, usually more egregious, violations.

Though state law, in some cases, arguably supports that position, he said, in a large part, prosecutors recognize the hurdles offenders face to make regular payments.

Babin said the fees and restitution do not address the underlying problems that led to the crime, such as drug addiction.

“If the guy is spending every dime he gets in his hands on narcotics, it is very difficult to collect restitution. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem for us, and it’s a problem for every district attorney and law enforcement person in the state of Louisiana,” said Babin, who chairs the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, a board charged with reviewing the state’s punishment schemes and recommending changes to state law.

His 23rd Judicial District covers Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes along the Mississippi River.

LeBlanc pulled out of his folder an order for a parolee from New Iberia. He is forbidden by law from identifying the offender.

“Here’s a guy who has to pay $1,440 a month,” he noted.

The fellow was single with two children and making $23.50 an hour when he finds construction work.

LeBlanc shook his head, while an aide wondered aloud if he personally could make that payment schedule.

“That’s a mortgage payment,” LeBlanc said. “Yes, it does make it difficult for them to make it out there when they have to pay these fees.”

The offender was ordered to first repay the stores where he kited checks, then start paying court fees and other costs for the next 35 months.

Based on the judge’s order, the probation and parole officer sets up the payment schedule.

“We may have to have a little lesson on finances with some of our agents,” LeBlanc said. “I just don’t know how people can survive having to pay that money back. So we have a little bit of work to do on our end to make it a little bit more reasonable.”

LeBlanc said an officer’s task is to help address the offender’s underlying problems that led to the crime, such as drug addiction or anger management, and to help the offender adjust to living peacefully in society.

“We want to develop a better relationship with them to help them get on their feet, and when you’re trying to collect money from them, I think that is a barrier,” LeBlanc said.

Gerald Starks, director of the Division of the Probation and Parole, said the issue is complicated because victims deserve the money repaid to them as restitution. He says their anger at not getting the restitution promised is understandable.

“Most victims are reasonable,” Starks said. “They understand that a lot of people have trouble paying, and they work with us.”

At least three victims in Baton Rouge, Brusly and St. Francisville, separately, refused to discuss their cases publicly, saying they feared the courts would punish them by not pressing for restitution payments.

Restorative justice is not a bad thing, said George Steimel, the lobbyist for the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. An offender who acknowledges having done someone wrong and who is trying to make amends is a positive step in rehabilitation.

But mixing restitution with other fees in a system that then punishes offenders for not keeping up payments they can’t afford undermines that rehabilitation.

“Is the way Louisiana is doing it the best? I’d argue no,” Steimel said.