Millions of dollars in criminal restitution payments never reach the victim

State keeps cash if victims can't be found
Posted at 7:54 PM, May 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-20 01:15:29-04

Crime victims all over Colorado are not collecting their court-ordered restitution because courts can't find them, according to data obtained by Denver7 Investigates.

Colorado court administrators say an average of $1.2 million dollars in restitution payments every year are unclaimed, meaning the victims did not cash the restitution payments sent to them. Often such payments are not claimed because the victims moved and did not inform the court. 

When payments are not cashed for two years the state turns them over to judicial district funds that aid victim advocacy and law enforcement programs.

Mitch Morrissey, Denver's former longtime district attorney, said Denver7's investigation shows the restitution system in Colorado is long overdue for reform.

"I think it's a bureaucracy without really somebody that takes control and says, 'Hey, we need to fix this. We need to make this right for victims of crime,'" Morrissey said.

Records kept confidential

Denver7 Investigates began researching unclaimed restitution in December and learned courts statewide turned over more than $6.2 million to unclaimed accounts between fiscal year 2012 through 2016. 

Denver7 hoped to publicize a database of victims' names to raise awareness for those who may not have known their restitution was ever paid. After all, it can take years for someone convicted of a crime to be able to pay off the balance of their court-ordered restitution. But officials said there is no such public database.

When Denver7 Investigates sought records of unclaimed cases, hoping to build our own database, judicial districts statewide said they would only release case numbers and dollar amounts citing victim privacy concerns. Some districts asked Denver7 to pay up to $1,500 for those case numbers. Denver7 received estimates totaling more than $6,000 statewide for access to case numbers and dollar amounts.

When asked whether such prices rendered this information inaccessible, the state court administrator’s spokesperson Rob McCallum wrote, “Channel 7 decided to undertake a massive research project, which you decided could not be accomplished due to your resource constraints.”

Several judicial districts including the 2nd (Denver) and 17th (Adams and Broomfield counties) turned over their case numbers and dollar amounts for little to no cost. Denver7 took those records to courthouses and read through dozens of case files in hopes of identifying victims, only to find that some case files had been destroyed, some did not contain any information about the victims, and some were missing restitution orders altogether.

Car stolen, no restitution

One of the incomplete case files Denver7 pulled in Adams County court was the 2007 theft of Jami Alleman’s car. Records indicated more than $1,000 of restitution collected in the case was turned over to the unclaimed fund in 2012.

Denver7 found Alleman, who said she remembered getting letters in the mail about restitution in the months after the man accused of stealing her car was arrested. Police recovered her car which she describes as needing extensive repairs and cleaning.

“I had the pleasure of digging through it in the impound lot, then paying for it to be cleaned and repaired before I got rid of it. After finding needles, crack pipes, and half eaten, rotten food, I refused to ever get in it again,” Alleman said.

Records obtained from Farmers Insurance showed damage to Alleman’s car cost close to $4,000 to repair, and Alleman had to pick up the $500 deductible. She also said she remembers paying hundreds of dollars to get the car out of impound.

She assumed the court ordered restitution for the costs she covered out of pocket, but she never followed up when she didn’t receive checks.

“I actually just assumed it was money I was never going to see. It would be really nice to get it, but I was never going to see the money. I mean, he stole the car, he had drugs, I just kind of assumed that he would not have the ability to pay any money,” Alleman said.

But it appears the accused thief did pay up. The problem now, confirmed by the court clerk, is that Alleman’s court file does not include any restitution order. The DA’s office has no record that she returned a required victim impact statement detailing the costs of repairing and recovering her stolen vehicle. The police report mentions that a co-defendant used stolen checks to buy thousands of dollars of merchandise, but the DA’s office said it did not have record of a victim impact statement requesting restitution for those checks either.

The state court administrator’s office said the identity of whoever is owed the unclaimed restitution amount is confidential. Court staff would not release the identity to Alleman either.

Victim advocates we spoke with said the criminal justice system often does not spend a lot of time letting victims know how they can be reimbursed for the money a crime cost them, and what they need to do to claim that restitution.

“The challenge really becomes, did that individual get fully informed at the onset of the crime about their restitution options,” said Ashley Arens of the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center. “And at the conclusion of a crime, the resolution, did someone re-inform them or re-share with them, which they're not obligated to do, their rights under restitution.”

Colorado law says restitution must be requested within 90 days of sentencing. Officials told us because of that law, Alleman would have no claim to file now, ten years after the fact, even though restitution has been paid and not claimed in her case.

Why victims don’t collect

Numbers provided by the state court administrator’s office show that only 11-percent of the $73 million courts ordered people to pay in 2016 has been collected. Going back ten years, only 34-percent of the restitution assessed in 2007 has been paid. That data show many victims can wait a long time for the “bad guy” to repay their debt, if they ever pay at all.  

When an individual is waiting for a defendant to pay back, sometimes that can happen quickly if an individual is on probation, sometimes it takes many years,” said Ahrens. “An individual who was convicted or had a plea sentence where they're serving 10, 20 years in the department of correction, that individual may not be paying back the victim their restitution until they complete their sentence and they have access to a job where they're able to pay more.”

Officials say because of those common delays in payment, it is vital for victims to inform court administrators every time they move. Filing a change of address form with the post office is not enough. McCallum said court accounting and collection staffs “utilize a variety of data sources to try to locate victims,” but still have trouble tracking people down.

We also face challenges in that some victims do not want to be found, businesses have closed with no forwarding address or information, individuals are deceased, name changes are granted, and many checks go uncashed. In fact, insurance companies often return restitution checks because the companies have reinsurers who have already made them whole. If they were to take the funds from us, that would be fraudulent,” McCallum wrote to Denver7.

Changes being considered

Mitch Morrissey said the state should find ways to make it easier for victims to communicate with the courts and check on the status of their restitution.

"It's not only worth exploring, it should be put in place. It's ridiculous that we don't have a system like that,” Morrissey said. "This is an easy fix. It's just nobody really wants to do it."

Morrissey pointed to VINELink, the online notification system that allows victims to sign up to receive notification when an offender is released from jail or transferred to another facility. He suggested a similar system that would notify victims when a restitution payment is received.

"Just build a system that lets a victim go online, see what they're owed, and get the latest information to the court so that check can be cut and sent to them," the former district attorney said.

He acknowledged there should be a degree of privacy in the process so victims don’t feel revictimized or overly exposed.

The state of Georgia set up an online database where victims can type in their names to search for unclaimed restitution. 

In Colorado, state courts are considering implementing a new set of rules around unclaimed restitution. One of the rules would require court accounting and collections departments to search for victims online and through various public records and government portals if checks come back uncashed.

A courts spokesperson said clerks began talking about those changes in April of 2016, and there is no timetable for when decisions will be made about the proposed rules.

When we asked the court system what victims should do to follow up on the status of their restitution, the spokesperson directed victims to their restitution web page.

“If a victim is not located and restitution is transferred in accordance with the statute, a victim is always able to recover these amounts at any time they come to the courts and request the unclaimed restitution,” McCallum wrote.

If you were the victim of a crime and restitution was ordered in your case and you have not received any payments, you can contact Denver7 Investigates and we will attempt to research your case. Call our tip line at 303-832-TIPS or email and with as much information as you have about the crime (ideally a case number, the name of the suspect, and the county where the court case was heard.)