Fines and Restitution

Improvement Needed in How Offenders' Payment Schedules Are Determined Gao ID: GGD-98-89 June 29, 1998

Persons convicted of a federal crime can be ordered to pay a fine or restitution at sentencing. Criminal fines, which are punitive, are to be paid in most cases to the Justice Department's Crime Victims Fund. Restitution is to be paid in certain federal criminal cases in which there is an identifiable victim. Overall, in 1996, the federal courts imposed about $102 million in fines and $1.5 billion in restitution. This report (1) identifies the guidance available to probation officers on how to determine payment schedules for offenders who are ordered to pay fines to the government and restitution to their victims and (2) assesses, in two judicial districts, how offenders' payment schedules were actually determined while under court supervision. An upcoming GAO report will include information on the types of offenders who are ordered to pay fines and restitution and those who are not ordered to pay.

GAO noted that: (1) in the Central District of California and the Northern District of Texas, probation officers who supervised offenders lacked clear, specific policy guidance for determining how much offenders should pay each month towards their court-ordered fines and restitution; (2) in the absence of such clear policy guidance, the officers in the two districts GAO reviewed developed their own methods for determining how much offenders could pay monthly; (3) these methods were often based on subjective decisions not associated with financial criteria; (4) GAO identified issues of inconsistency and apparent inequity in 62 percent of the Central District of California installment-payment cases GAO reviewed; (5) the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) has provided guidance to probation officers on how to determine payment schedules; (6) however, the guidance, which is focused on what information to collect and how to collect it, does not specify how probation officers are to analyze financial information provided by offenders to determine how much, or if all, of the fine or restitution can be paid each month; (7) the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) offered financial investigation training to probation officers that provided more specific guidance on determining repayment schedules than that contained in the AOUSC manuals and publications; (8) although AOUSC viewed the training as reflecting its policies, it did not make this clear to probation officers; (9) moreover, the FJC training is voluntary, and not all officers took it; (10) the inconsistent methods used by probation officers for determining an offender's monthly payment schedule resulted in apparently inequitable treatment of offenders and reduced or slowed payments to the Crime Victims Fund and to crime victims; and (11) although GAO's detailed reviews were limited to two judicial districts and cannot be generalized beyond those districts, the fact that probation officers in other judicial districts are working with the same limited guidance and lack of financial standards as the districts GAO visited creates the risk that the types of inconsistencies and apparent inequities GAO found could occur nationwide.


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