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Crime victims deserve better – much better

Perhaps the rest of the state should take a page from Clackamas regarding restitution

Among the most egregious flaws in Oregon's justice system is its inability to collect the money that criminals are supposed to pay to their victims in the way of restitution.

Judges frequently order that such restitution be made - but more often than not, crime victims are left hanging without a dime. This shortcoming violates just about anyone's sense of justice, and it also is a direct infringement on the Oregon Constitution.

That's why we support Oregon Attorney General John Kroger's push for legislation that would begin to improve the restitution system and actually require criminals to make financial amends for the harm they cause to others.

It's no secret that criminals in Oregon don't pay their restitution. A recent Portland Tribune investigation into this matter showed that Multnomah County alone has $77 million in unpaid restitution and that only about 5 percent of the money owed by parolees is ever collected. (The figure is 25 percent for those on probation.)

Up until a few years ago, Multnomah County had two positions dedicated to helping victims collect restitution, but those jobs were eliminated in budget cuts.

You have to look no further than Clackamas County, however, to view a better system for reimbursements.

Here in Clackamas County restitution nonpayers get brought before Judge Kenneth Stewart two mornings a month. On the first visit, offenders get a lecture and are made aware that Stewart knows how much they owe, how much they have paid and how much they make.

Stewart has the authority to extend the probation of offenders who don't pay their restitution, or terminate the probation of offenders who pay on time. Offenders without much money get help in putting together a budget and schedule they can afford, and Stewart says he is not above looking at whether an offender smokes or has cable TV in assessing ability to pay at least $10 a month.

The backbone of the Clackamas County restitution court is its team of three clerks who spend most of their time putting together all the payment, income and lifestyle data that makes Stewart's job possible. Even Stewart says he's not certain he will continue to get funding to keep the court open.

The court has been successful in making Clackamas County among the best in Oregon in terms of collecting restitution for victims. Before the court began in 2004, Clackamas County was collecting about $560,000 in annual restitution payments. Now, it collects an estimated $700,000 annually. Court clerks were unable to calculate exactly how much it costs to run the court because the clerks also do other county work, but given personnel costs alone, Clackamas Country must be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for victims.

Multnomah County's record is particularly troublesome, but unfulfilled restitution is a statewide problem, even in Clackamas, which bucks the trend. To address this issue, Kroger requested that Rep. Jeff Barker of Aloha introduce House Bill 3066, which would set up a pilot program to improve the restitution system.

The bill requires the state Department of Justice to fund five restitution clerks who would be assigned to different counties. The clerks would work with district attorneys prior to trials to determine which cases are the best candidates for restitution. The legislation also would fund five additional agents statewide who would more aggressively pursue actual payment of restitution in these particular cases.

The money to pay for this program would be borrowed from the state's Criminal Injuries Compensation Account - not allocated from the state general fund. Then, as restitution money is collected through these increased efforts, a portion of those funds would be used to pay back the account.

With this type of funding, the restitution program won't take dollars away from other state priorities, but it will begin to make restitution something more than a judicial mockery in Oregon. The state's voters feel so strongly about restitution that they have made it a constitutional right for victims to receive prompt payment. The Legislature must move rapidly to adopt House Bill 3066 to prove that it cares both about the constitution and about justice for crime victims.