Victims' Rights Caucus

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Victim restitution lags badly in Phila.
By Nancy Phillips and Craig R. McCoy
Inquirer Staff Writers

The burglar struck in broad daylight. He climbed through a window of a home in Northeast Philadelphia and rummaged through the house while the owners were at work.

As it happened, Joseph and Helen Sztenderowicz were planning a move to the suburbs, so their possessions were neatly packed in cardboard boxes stacked around the house.

That made for easy pickings for the thief. He stole jewelry, family heirlooms, a coin collection, electronics.

"It was heartbreaking," said Helen Sztenderowicz. "It was all the jewelry I had from the time I was 10 years old. It was stuff my Gram left me, stuff my kids gave me, stuff my husband gave me."

Fingerprints on the window led police to a young man down the street, Jeffrey Smith, then 21. He pleaded guilty to burglary and was sentenced to up to two years in jail. And he was ordered to make his neighbors whole financially by paying restitution of $8,879.

A decade later, they are still waiting for their money.

They have lots of company. Thousands of Philadelphians share their plight.

Convicted criminals in the city owe hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, fees, and restitution to their victims, but the courts have not found a way to get them to pay up.

Philadelphia defendants are supposed to be paying out $144 million a year, court officials say. At last count, they were paying only $10 million yearly.

That works out to 7 cents on the dollar.

Of the 224,000 convicted defendants on payment plans, 206,000 are behind. Almost all are months in arrears.

And Philadelphia's court system trails far behind the rest of the state in getting defendants to pay up, comparative data show.

Under a statewide rule, when the guilty make payments, court systems must first see that money goes to the state's victim-compensation fund and victim-services programs.

The charges are modest - $35 per offender to the compensation fund and $25 to victim services. Yet last year, Philadelphia ranked last among Pennsylvania's 67 counties in support for the services program and was second to last for the compensation fund.

Financial collections have not been a strong suit for the city courts. As The Inquirer has reported, about 210,000 fugitives owe a staggering $1 billion in forfeited bail.

Nor does the system simply garnishee the pay of offenders, though that's permitted under Pennsylvania law. Court officials say they are considering doing that.

For victims, it all adds up to frustration.

"It's been 10 years, and I've collected $147," said Helen Sztenderowicz, 53, a dental hygienist who now lives in Montgomery County. "He robbed us. He owes us this money, and he's not paying."

Increasingly, judges across the United States are demanding that criminals be held accountable in a very concrete way - by putting up cash to compensate their victims. The movement has a name: "restorative justice."

Since 2006, Philadelphia judges have ordered 8,115 offenders to pay money to almost 11,000 victims, records show. But many of those victims received nothing. Figures for earlier years aren't available.

Despite the woes in Philadelphia, experts and officials elsewhere say that offenders can be made to pay.

A pioneering New Jersey program found that if judges were willing to threaten to imprison defendants for nonpayment, offenders indeed made "significantly more and larger payments," according to a report on the effort by David Weisburd, a University of Maryland criminologist.

David C. Lawrence, the Philadelphia courts administrator, said his st