Unfair Punishment Part Two: Sentenced to Poverty 

The state often traps formerly incarcerated people — even those convicted of low-level offenses — with insurmountable debts.

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As is the case with Turner, the financial burdens of restitution can stay with people for years, creating yet another barrier to rehabilitation post-incarceration — one that can make it hard to secure a job, go back to school, or even keep up with rent. In this way, the state traps people in poverty, shackling them to the prison system after they've left it.


Ruben Leal knows firsthand how the state's Victim Compensation system can intensify the suffering of those already in pain. After Leal was shot in a drive-by incident in 2010, the state refused to offer him any aid due to his alleged failure to cooperate with police (a story told in part one of this two-part series). The 25-year-old East Oakland resident is also intimately familiar with the burden that the state's restitution system can place on families trying to help their loved ones behind bars. Leal's brother has been in prison since 2004, and every time his mother sends his brother money, the department takes its 50 percent cut.

"All these people, mostly from low-income families, are paying into this fund — and they're the same people that don't qualify [to receive victim compensation]," said Leal, who works as an outreach coordinator with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, a local nonprofit. "People think that money is coming from taxpayers, which it's not. Folks are paying into that fund with restitution. I feel like the whole system is flawed." Even as the state seizes half the money his mother sends him, Leal's brother will very likely have large unpaid debts upon his release.

In addition to the misconception that Victim Compensation is a taxpayer-supported program, the role of restitution in the California criminal justice system is also widely misunderstood. While some assume that restitution simply means offenders paying victims for specific damages, in reality, it's more complex.

There are two main forms of restitution in the state: One is the "direct order" that offenders must pay to a victim. This is a financial penalty that a person convicted of a crime must pay directly to the victim to repay the losses he or she suffered. The other type is the restitution "fine" — the offender's mandatory "debt to society." Judges order these fines at sentencing for every misdemeanor and felony offense, and these payments go to the state, making up the majority of revenue of the "Restitution Fund."

It is from this pool of money, which has generally remained static in recent years, that the state compensates victims of violence — beyond what they receive directly from the person convicted of the crime. The Victim Compensation program also gets some federal dollars from restitution fines paid by people convicted in federal court. Governor Jerry Brown's fiscal year 2013-14 budget calls for Victim Compensation to spend $75 million of the fund on victims, but there is no cap, meaning victims are never rejected due to the financial limits of the fund. Since the program was first established in 1965, the state has provided victims with more than $2.2 billion in aid.

"These are rights at a constitutional level, which means they are no less important than a defendant's right to counsel," said Ken Ryken, head of the Alameda County District Attorney's restitution unit. He was referring to California's Victim's Bill of Rights, which first passed in 1982 and was amended in 2008. This amendment to the state constitution outlines a victim's right to restitution, noting that people who suffer losses as a result of criminal activity have a right to seek and secure restitution from offenders — and that restitution shall be ordered from convicted wrongdoers in every case in which a victim suffers a loss.

When it comes to "direct orders," there is little dispute that convicted offenders should be held financially responsible for the losses their victims incur as a result of the crime. The additional mandatory restitution fines, however, are controversial.

Ryken said that restitution fines make it possible to help victims with serious and costly needs. If a victim has hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, for example, it's likely that an offender, who may be serving a long prison sentence, would not be able to cover the expenses. The state can then draw from the Restitution Fund and reimburse the victim in a timely manner, which also ensures that the victim does not have an ongoing debtor relationship with the offender over time. In these scenarios, the offender is then in debt to the state, not the victim. "It's really a smart idea at the state level," Ryken said.

In California, the statutory restitution fine amounts have steadily increased in recent years. For misdemeanor fines, the minimum amount a judge can order, as of 2014, is $150, up from $100 in 2011; the maximum is $1,000. For felonies, the minimum fine is now $300, up from $200 in 2011; the maximum is $10,000. These fines are entirely separate from orders offenders may be paying to their victims. Payment of restitution fees is mandatory; the debt cannot be eliminated through bankruptcy.

"When I look at the victim restitution fund, what I see is a hostage relationship," said Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. "We're taxing the family members of incarcerated people by seizing money that they send their loved one .... They're demanding ransom."

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