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Editorial | Our View

Reform victim restitution program


Victims of crime in Hawaii deserve full restitution from offenders, but most are receiving little of what they were promised in court. Much of their problem in obtaining compensation results from what judges determine is the ability of offenders to pay the total restitution in a timely manner, but more pressure is needed on offenders to make the required payments.

Judiciary officials told the Star-Advertiser’s Ken Kobayashi that an "antiquated" computer-management system cannot even provide statistics on the restitution recovery rate. Many criminal offenders are unable to pay the amount ordered, or claim as much, especially during a crippled economy, so other avenues come into play.

For its part, 13 years after a scathing state auditor’s report, the Judiciary is finally set to replace its old computer system. Around June 2012, the Judiciary Information Management System (JIMS) will include restitution information for traffic and misdemeanor cases. Restitution for Circuit Court criminal and Family Court cases will be phased into JIMS through 2015. This should go a long way toward payback.

Meanwhile, the state Crime Victim Compensation Commission provides to victims compensation fees or reimbursements assessed by judges in cases where the offender’s payments have fallen short. The commission’s revenue comes entirely from court-ordered restitution and 10 percent of prison inmates’ wages of 25 cents an hour, bolstered by a 60 percent federal match through the 1984 Victims of Crime Act.

The state commission helps crime victims or their dependents obtain monetary restitution in compliance with judges’ sentencing orders. It has processed 21,000 victim applications and presented awards of as much as $1 million or more in medical and counseling costs, lost wages and funeral expenses.

However, the commission reported last year that its initial optimism about revenue from compensation orders "was tempered by concerns that some judges are still not ordering the compensation fee in all eligible cases, and the consequences of the current weak economy." A judge cannot take into account the offender’s ability to pay in ordering restitution but is required to do so in determining the amount of monthly payments.

Anyone who has been a victim of crime knows that the sense of violation does not go away, and offenders should be made to feel the weight of their crimes, at least until their court-imposed debt is paid. For victims of tragic loss, especially, the system must more aggressively push for justice instead of letting penalties languish.

For example, Tyler Duarte was under the influence of drugs and alcohol and speeding in 2007 when he lost control of his family’s car and crashed into another car, killing Sandra Storm-Conway’s sister and cousin. Duarte was ordered to pay $7,000 in restitution for funeral expenses. He paid $500 monthly until he admitted to another crime soon afterward and was ordered to pay restitution in that case. His monthly restitution amount to reimburse the funeral expenses was dropped to $30 — a galling development — so Storm-Conway turned to the commission, which provided her with $1,713 and is seeking reimbursement from Duarte.

"Until you start tracking what’s outstanding, it’s hard to get agencies to focus their attention on the problem and see the scope of the problem," said Susan Howell, public policy director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

The state should consider a system like that in Maricopa County, Ariz., where offenders who have not paid restitution are questioned in court about their income and living expenses, such as whether they have cable TV and special sports programs. Offenders should not be released from official supervision until payments are done. That would assist justice officials — including newly elected city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro in his laudable, zero-tolerance attempt to "actively and aggressively pursue restitution" by relying on probation officers who monitor non-jailed offenders who have been ordered to pay.

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