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But Lewis still struggles to understand why the system sets people up for failure. "People make mistakes ... but they do want to change their lives," he said, adding, "if you're paying restitution, I feel like you should be paying restitution to a victim ... people who got robbed or brutally beat up. That's what restitution is for."
While restitution made it difficult for Lewis to get a job, it can have more severe consequences for people convicted of serious crimes.
"Absolutely, victims have a right to restitution to be made whole," said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods. "The flipside is that one mistake by your client can essentially ruin their lives, and when you have those clients who have taken every step to get back on the right track — they've completed probation, they've stayed out of trouble, they've done what they're supposed to do — and they have this huge financial obligation, it makes it very hard for them to move forward."
At the state level, parole agents and officials with the Victim Compensation program refer formerly incarcerated people with unpaid restitution debts to the state Franchise Tax Board, which assumes responsibility for collection. The mechanisms are different for each county, but often involve private collection agencies that go after those in debt. These entities function in a similar manner to credit card companies in pursuit of debtors. "Like any commercial practice, their compensation depends on how successful they are, so they may be fairly aggressive," said Ryken of the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. (Alameda County does not contract with private companies for this service and is one of two counties in California with a dedicated restitution court that oversees the collection process.)
Debt collectors may intercept income tax refunds, withhold wages from paychecks, and even take money directly from an individual's bank account. In some cases, fees and premiums may add to a person's debt. The state can also place a lien on inheritances. Meanwhile, debt can severely damage an individual's credit, prevent people from getting a driver's license, and block an otherwise eligible person from clearing his or her record of misdemeanor convictions.
For some people with criminal records, the combined impact of these consequences can make it impossible to live a normal life — even years after incarceration.
The amount of time it takes criminal offenders to pay their restitution fees varies tremendously and cannot be tracked, according to Anne Gordon, a spokesperson for the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. It can range from a few months to years, she said.
Data on the amount of fines ordered versus the amount of fines collected, however, sheds some light on people's inability to pay. In California, from 1992 to 2013, judges levied $812 million in restitution fines against criminal defendants who were sent to state prison, according to statistics provided by Dana Simas, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. During that same time period, the state collected only about $190 million, or 23 percent of the total. And the collection rate for restitution direct orders, which are supposed to be paid by criminal offenders directly to their victims, was even lower for people who were sentenced to state prison: Of the more than $3 billion fines levied during that period, the state has collected the equivalent of about 2 percent.
Teeoni and Keyuna Newsom have learned the hard way how the restitution system traps people in debt. The two women met about five years ago shortly after they were both released from state prison, and they have been partners ever since. They got married last July and now live in Richmond where they're raising their twelve-year-old daughter. Teeoni, 36, works full-time as the young men's case manager at Community Works West, the nonprofit organization affiliated with the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. Keyuna, 33, works as a part-time administrative assistant for Resolve to Stop the Violence, a program of Community Works.
Teeoni said she was once a gang member in Southern California and spent roughly seventeen years behind bars for a range of crimes, including robbery, carjacking, assault, and more. Teeoni has "two strikes" on her record under California's Three Strikes Law, meaning she could get a life sentence if she were convicted of another serious felony. Keyuna spent about two years in prison for possession and grand theft in a case that she said involved an undercover cop (and thus no actual victim). Through a series of programs and job opportunities, the two have turned themselves around and are now focused on rebuilding their lives together and raising a family. By all measures, their criminal histories are behind them — except for their restitution fines.
When Teeoni was first released in 2009, she had an initial debt of roughly $3,000, which the state began collecting by taking a 10-percent cut from every paycheck. Then one day in 2010, collectors confiscated roughly $4,000 directly from the joint bank account she shares with Keyuna, who also had thousand of dollars to pay off. At the time, they weren't even sure whose unpaid fines led to the sweep. But their account was wiped clean — seemingly out of nowhere.
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