Criminals repaying victims -- a popular idea struggling for survival

The logic seems flawless: If a thief takes a stereo, he must pay back the money to buy a new one. And if a person is found guilty of selling drugs or of prostitution, he or she should repay the community by doing public-service work.

Those two ideas have gained great political popularity in the past few years as both crime rates and prison populations have escalated. But so far "restitution" plans remain haphazard, experimental, and largely underfunded, even though almost all the states have hopped on the bandwagon.

One of the most successful has been Project Repay in Portland, Ore., which during its first five years has turned over $1.26 million to victims involved in almost 4,000 crimes, ranging from stolen cars to forgeries and robberies.

A highly streamlined program. Project Repay takes the part of an insurance adjuster, determining how much damage has been done to the victim. The judge in the case then decides how much money the offender must pay, usually over a period of five years.

Meanwhile, project Inner Voices in Washington, D.C., runs a more complex program for 80 felony offenders. A few of the Inner Voices clients pay back their victims. (About $600 has been sent to victims this year.) But all are "repaying" the community in the form of 200 hours of public service work in institutions such as hospitals or nursing homes.

The two projects share a common problem, a shortage of funds. Both began with federal grants through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. Inner Voices, whose three-year grant runs out next month, will have to close its restitution program, which costs $150,000 a year, mostly for staffing, unless it can find new money sources soon.

In Oregon, the state at first picked up the tab for Project Repay when the federal grant ended. Now only the country is supporting it, so the staff is down from four to two -- one full-time, one part-time -- and the budget from $85 ,000 to $33,000.

There is a "huge amount of state legislation authorizing" restitution to victims, says Alan T. Harland, director of the Criminal Justice Research Center in Albany, N.Y. "It's a popular, hot political issue, like apple pie and motherhood. But when it comes to money, it's not there."

Mr. Harland has just completed a study, to be released later this year by the US Department of Justice, of 10 victim-assistance projects in eight states. All 10 started with federal money, and only three have outlived their US grants.

Not just lack of money, but other problems, too, have cropped up, according to Harland. One program in Minnesota involved an unsuccessful attempt to get victims to meet at the prison to discuss repayment, while a Massachusetts plan that involved gathering together victims, offenders, lawyers, and officials for arbitration proved "unworkable and expensive," according to Harland.

On the positive side, Harland says that some victim assistance programs have a good record of collecting money from offenders. The result in these cases is more victim satisfaction.

For criminals, the prospects are less promising, according to Harland. Victim restitution plans could lead to a modern-day "debtors prison," and they do not produce shorter prison terms, he says.

Moreover, these programs put pressure on offenders to produce money in any way possible. "We have had forged checks turned in to a restitution program," he says.

Harland sees more promise in sentencing offenders to community service, which he says it totally separate from repaying a victim. Judges who now put some chronic, nonviolent criminals behind bars could use the public service alternative as an "intermediate" course between locking them up and sending them back to the streets.

Judge Lois G. Forer in Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas has taken a strong stand for both repayment of victims and public service for criminals.

"I continue to sentence people to restitution," says Judge Forer. "I treat it as an alternative to prison," she adds, excpet for criminals who are guilty of violent acts such as rape or assault.

She has ordered offenders to pay as much as $15,000 over a period of time. "Most [criminals] commit crimes for money. They should pay in money," she reasons. She guesses that one-third to one-half of the payments she orders are made to victims, who she says are "delighted if anyone is thinking about them."

The alternative to restitution, says Judge Forer, "is a fortress society with more and more people locked up, more people employed as jailers without any noticeable effect on the crime rate."

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