Steal Now, Don't Pay Later

In August 1990, Daniel W. Smith was convicted of grand theft in Alameda County and sentenced to five years probation, the statutory maximum. Part of that sentence included an order that he pay restitution to his victims.

But two of those victims say he has repaid less than 20 percent of the money he took from them. And many legal authorities dismiss California's criminal restitution laws as high-minded ideas that seldom work and are impossible to enforce.

In 1982, the California Constitution was amended to include a Victim's Bill of Rights, which gave birth to mandatory restitution. Essentially, the amendment says victims have the right to financial restitution from the criminals who harm them, in the form of court orders. But since the Victim's Bill of Rights went into effect, there have been 12 different laws tinkering with restitution.

None of them has altered the bottom line: Criminals don't often have the money to pay, and court officers don't have time to chase them.

Of the 11,746 people on parole in California during 1994, only 9 percent were employed full time, according to a Department of Corrections study. The annual cost to supervise a parolee is $2,110; the average annual restitution payment is about $300.

And legal observers say judges are reluctant to issue orders that they know will never be carried out.

"Judges never like to order the impossible. And I think they are becoming more reluctant," says UC Berkeley law professor Malcolm Feeley. "It's [restitution is] given short shrift or low priority [in enforcement]. So, it's like why beat your head against a wall."

Since 1986, victims have been legally able to collect from criminals, using restitution orders much like civil judgments to attach wages or file liens against property. But few victims know they have such attachment powers. The latest law concerning restitution -- a bill authored by Sen. Quentin Kopp (Ind.-S.F.) that went into effect in January -- requires victim assistance programs to inform victims of their right to collect from criminals and to tell victims how they can do it. The new law also requires that judges designate specific amounts, rather than simply calling for restitution, and stipulates that restitution orders never expire.

But it's still largely up to victims to get their money back, and gaining restitution seems to rest more on luck than anything else. If you're going to get ripped off, pray the thief is rich -- or at least has a steady source of legal income.

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