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Restitution: real fine for criminals.

Restitution: Real Fine For Criminals

"Under our system of law," then-House Majority Whip Tony Coelho said last spring, "John Mack owed his debt to society, not to this young woman." But Mack, who subsequently became Jim Wright's right-hand man, had slashed the young woman's throat, not "society's." Mack had beaten the young woman over the head with a hammer and left her for dead. Pamela Small's family paid thousands of dollars to have her face and skull reconstructed. Besides sitting in jail for a few years more than the 27 months he served, shouldn't Mack have had to contribute something (like maybe everything he owned) to repair some of the damage he'd done?

Today, Coelho's "logic" notwithstanding, he probably would have. Federal judges and judges in 23 states are required either to order criminals to compensate their victims or to explain in writing their reasons for not doing so. And in the last few years, an almost underground system of victim restitution programs has sprung up across the country. In one of these programs, while incarcerated, Mack might have had to work off his victim's medical bills. He might have had to sit across a table from his victim and face up to what he'd done to her. He might have been moved enough to apologize, which, in Small's words, "would have helped. If only symbolically."

The concept of victim restitution, of course, is hardly new. In the Bible, Zacchaeus, a corrupt tax collector, had to pay Israelites four times what he had taken from them and then give half of what he had left to the poor. Throughout much of medieval times, restitution was the method of choice to recompense victims. But in 1116, England's Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, made himself the victim of all criminal crimes. A fortunate side effect of this move was that the state got to keep all compensation. The role of the victim gradually disappeared from the criminal justice system; to seek compensation, a victim was forced to go through arduous and often prohibitively expensive civil court proceedings.

The idea of victim restitution resurfaced in the late 1960s, propelled by a general dissatisfaction with both institutionalization and probation. Restitution could hold a crook accountable for his crime - benefitting the victim, the community, and perhaps even the offender. One of the most innovative restitution programs was started in the Quincy, Massachusetts, District Court by Judge Albert Kramer in 1975. Kramer thought there existed a better option for first-time offenders than putting them back on the streets or in jail. He put them to work.

His Earn-It program found offenders minimum-wage, part-time jobs in the community (at department stores, grocery stores, car washes, gas stations - whichever local businesses would take them). The criminals gave two-thirds of their earnings to their victims until the debt was paid, keeping the rest. For many offenders, it was their first job; for others, it was the first time they had borne responsibility.

The program was so successful - approximately 80 percent fulfilled their restitution obligations - that even offenders convicted of violent crimes were included. Now there is no longer an Earn-It program per se at Quincy court; there's a probation department that does creative restitution and community service sentencing. The department hands out about 1,000 restitution orders a year, at an average of $400 each. In 1988, $350,000 passed from criminals to victims.

More than 500 jurisdictions now offer some type of victim restitution program, whether set up on the Quincy employment-focused model, on a work center model (for those who need incarceration), or on a more victim-oriented model (where paying off the victim is more important than finding the offender a job). In general, the victim's role in these programs has been growing, often out of sheer practicality. Rather than just leave the restitution up to the judge, many jurisdictions have adopted the "arbitration" method, which protects the offender against exaggerated claims and offers the victim a chance for real input. Essentially, the two parties haggle, through a probation officer, over the appropriate restitution.

Some programs, like one run by the sheriff's department in Genesse County, New York, eliminate the middleman and have the criminal and victim negotiate face to face - even in cases involving violent crimes. According to Burt Galloway, a professor of social work at the University of Minnesota, who has run several mediation programs, when the criminal meets his victim face-to-face he often apologizes - and he's more likely to pay back in full. Besides the financial benefits, restitution is thought to bring psychological comfort to victims by restoring their sense of fairness and control over their lives. Victim-offender meetings also bring a feeling of closure.

Given these benefits of restitution, judges should have to require it in all cases involving damages. And there should be some mechanism so that the improverished criminal who comes into money later doesn't get off scot-free. Mack was making just over $5,000 a year when he attacked Small, but by the time the story broke last year he was earning roughly $89,500.

Not only would a system like this better sensitize judges to the needs of victims, it would force them to use restitution in white-collar cases. The complexity and large amount of money involved in these cases currently discourage the use of restitution. Many savings and loan executives, for example, could never in their lifetimes pay back all the people they robbed. These guys usually wind up getting fined and serving some time. But just because they can't pay their victims back doesn't mean we shouldn't make them try. Should Charles Keating get convicted, would you rather see him sitting around in the prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, or, after putting in a little time, working off his debt in a downtown car wash?
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Author:Lehrman, Karen
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Sentences that make sense; making the punishment fit the crime.
Next Article:CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics.

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