A Santa Clara County civil grand jury today criticized four major county agencies for how they manage court-ordered restitution funds for crime victims and said "little has been done" since a 2004 grand jury reported on the issue.
The jury examined procedures used by county agencies over how restitution paid by criminals to victims is assessed and ordered, including the District Attorney's Office and Departments of Probation, Revenue and Correction.
The agencies assigned to oversee restitution from criminals and disburse the money to victims lack "sufficient cooperation" and have not kept the promises of Proposition 8, the victim's bill of rights passed by California voters in 2008, the panel said.
Crime victims who suffered losses due to a criminal's conduct and received judicial-ordered compensation as part of a defendant's sentence often have to resort to hiring an attorney to file suit to collect when should not have to, the grand jury reported.
The civil grand jury, which is impaneled once a year, acts as the final oversight of government agencies within the county and is "a mainstay in California government," county Superior Court spokesman Joe Macaluso said.
Among its 10 recommendations on victim restitution, the 2013-2014 grand jury said that the district attorney's office should develop better ways to collect information about victims' monetary losses before defendants are sentenced.
The jury found that the district attorney's office in 2011 used more than $419,000 in unclaimed victim restitution funds for employee positions within the office for working with victims and restitution cases.
The district attorney's office should make sure money collected on behalf of the county's crime victims that go unclaimed be deposited into a designated account "for victim services," the jury said.
The panel reported that the county Probation Department "does not regularly review victim restitution obligations for criminals" who are on "banked" or unsupervised probation to see if convicts are meeting their restitution obligations.
Probation "rarely seeks to revoke probation for a criminal whose only probation violation is failure to pay court-ordered restitution," the jury said.
County officials ought to "aggressively ascertain the criminal's ability to pay" and place a violation of probation hearing on the court's calendar when a criminal fails to pay what they owe, jurors said.
The county's Department of Revenue, which has the primary responsibility for billing criminals for restitution payments, "rarely enforces collections in the same way as a private sector collection agency" and should adopt those methods to make sure the funds are paid in full, the jury said.
The revenue department should in fact send unpaid restitution accounts to outside collection agencies "to increase the amount of victim restitution collected from delinquent criminals," the panel stated.
Crime victims who are not satisfied with how the revenue department is collecting and distributing their restitution funds should be made aware they could pursue collection in civil court using what is called the Order of Victim Restitution and Abstract of Judgment, the group recommended.
The Department of Correction should be deducting portions of money deposited in the personal funds of inmates in county jails to apply toward the restitution owed to their victims, the jury said.
The grand jury also urged the county as a whole to explore methods of maintaining current contact information of victims and ways to improve collecting money meant for them.
Representatives of the revenue, probation and correction departments could not be reached for comment.
Assistant District Attorney Terry Harman said that the grand jury's findings and recommendations predate what the district attorney's office has done already on restitution issues.
Deputy district attorneys are required to fill out forms with the losses due the victims and the victims' addresses and other contact information, Harman said.
"We take the restitution matter very seriously" and the office previously "took steps to fix" the matters of the jury's concern, Harman said.
Peter Jensen, administrative services manager for the district attorney's office, said that the office did use the nearly $419,000 in unclaimed restitution money from 2011 to fund paralegal employees to work on victim restitution cases, which he said is permitted under state law.
From February to August of 2013, the district attorney's office had a crew of 10 to 12 paralegals working specifically on finding victims owed restitution money and disbursing it to them, according to Supervising Paralegal Vincent Reyna.
A civil grand jury that met from 2003 to 2004 issued a report about the county's victim restitution policies on May 25, 2004 with findings and proposed changes but "in the last ten years little has been done to implement" the recommendations, jurors reported.
One of the 2004 jury's recommendations was for the county to create the Victim Restitution Committee.
But the 2013-2014 jury complained that the committee, which includes representatives of the Superior Court, the district attorney's office and probation department, does not do much and "has been ineffective" since 2007.
Jurors attended two of the committee's meetings, which lasted for about an hour, and "nothing of substance occurred...agendas were minimal and most of the meeting takes place under 'Round Table Discussion,'" they said.
The panel launched its investigation into the county's victims restitution system after receiving a complaint from a person who claimed that she and several other victims were owed "several hundred thousand dollars" from a criminal.
The victims, under a judge's ruling, were supposed to be getting $1,000 a month for 36 months but the first four monthly checks averaged less than $100 and so they ended up hiring an attorney, who helped them get their full restitution.