CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A young burglar accused of burning down the St. Paul United Methodist Church 13 years ago was ordered to make $2.4 million in restitution. It was, at best, wishful thinking on the part of the court.
A new church was built, but no thanks to him. He coughed up a paltry $374.
There is no central database that can put a total price tag on unpaid court-ordered restitution in all 50 states. However, a nationwide examination by the Associated Press shows it is billions of dollars.
Often, the problem is that restitution orders are purely symbolic, the amounts so big that many defendants can't possibly pay up. But it is also the case that many states make little effort to go after whatever money is available.
"It's a system that's fraught with inadequacies, improper checks and balances, no procedures in place. It's sort of a haphazard little dance that everyone dances around," said Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia district attorney.
That is changing in some places. Many states have begun taking steps to force defendants to pay up. Some, like Arizona, are turning to outside collection agencies. Others, such as Pennsylvania and Colorado, are ratcheting up their in-house collection efforts.
"There was a culture in Arizona that you can blow off paying money to the courts in some areas because they aren't going to do anything about it. So that's the first thing we set about to change," said Michael DiMarco, consolidated collections manager for Arizona's courts.
The amount of unpaid court costs, fines, fees and restitution in Arizona totaled $831 million at last count. But the state has managed to bring in close to $90 million since it contracted four years ago with
Missouri and Minnesota also use Affiliated, which duns people by mail and phone and keeps a percentage of whatever it collects.
"We have cases going back to 1984 that people are paying on, simply because somebody finally came and said, 'You owe money,' " DiMarco said.
In addition, Arizona feeds information from its court system computers to other state agencies, and they use it intercept deadbeats' state income tax refunds.
Colorado has developed an aggressive in-house system with about 100 collection investigators who begin working with offenders on repayment right away. It has doubled restitution collections in the past decade to $25 million.