Victim restitution lags badly in Phila.

Posted: November 21, 2010

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 staff was working on innovative efforts to collect money and had already begun to go after the $1 billion in bail money. Along with garnisheeing pay, the courts are eyeing a plan to revoke the driver's licenses of those who don't pay.

"We are taking unprecedented steps to aggressively pursue financial obligations owed by offenders," Lawrence said.

At the same time, Lawrence said, dunning the Philadelphia offender population is no easy matter. Of the 48,000 men and women on probation or parole, he noted, 69 percent are jobless.

Still, Carol L. Lavery, the state's victim advocate, said she was troubled by the lagging collections.

"Victims suffer losses, and one of the losses is a financial loss," she said. "Being able to help them recover and go back to pre-crime status, be it financial or psychological, is really important."

Lavery's office is setting up a task force to study restitution statewide with a goal of ensuring that more victims collect.

Restitution, she said, "is problematic in Pennsylvania."

"People think you hand out justice in a courtroom," said Mary Achilles, the state's first victim advocate. "For victims, it is really a journey. When offenders pay, that has such a significant impact on how victims view the system of justice in Philadelphia. When victims see some movement towards accountability, it's atonement."

'Every day I think about this'

Joseph Sztenderowicz has seen little sign of atonement.

"Every day I think about this," he said. "It's like he's getting away with it."

Since the break-in in October 2000, Jeffrey Smith, now 31, has made a few small payments toward the nearly $9,000.

His payments lagged in part because in 2002, he was convicted and jailed again for breaking into a building and assaulting an off-duty police officer. At the time of that arrest, he was on probation in the burglary case, and Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas Dempsey extended his probation by two years.

That gave the judge more time to try to enforce the restitution order. But in retrospect, Dempsey said last week, he should have been more forceful.

"Had I to do it differently now, I would have given him longer probation," the judge said in an interview. "The guy still owes a ton of money."

As a practical matter, Dempsey said, judges are often unable to force a defendant to pay.

"It's a problem," he said. "It's like making a no-interest loan and taking 10 years to pay it back. It's not making any sense."

Yet Dempsey said judges are loath to put people behind bars for failing to pay up.

"The culture is you can't lock someone up just for money. You just can't," he said.

Smith's lawyer, Robert Marc Gamburg, said his client had struggled financially in recent years, but nonetheless had made some small payments to the Sztenderowiczes - as well as to yet another victim.

In that case, Smith owes almost $6,000 to a man he struck with a coffee mug in 2007, breaking his nose and cutting his face.

A few years ago, court records show, Smith was making $50 a day, handing out fliers for a pizzeria. More recently, Gamburg said, Smith has worked in his father's home-improvement business, but the firm has been faltering.

"Based on his economic circumstances," the lawyer said, "he's doing the best he can."

No restitution order

Some victims don't see any money for a more basic reason. Judges never order restitution in the first place.

Even though restitution is mandatory under state law and has been since 1995, some judges simply don't require it, court records show.

This has been a persistent problem in Philadelphia and throughout the state, said Tami Levin, director of Victim/Witness Services for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

Though there are little recent data on the issue, a groundbreaking study by Pennsylvania State University criminologist R. Barry Ruback in the late 1990s found that in almost four out of 10 eligible cases, Pennsylvania judges were not ordering restitution.

A second Ruback study, in 2004, found that Philadelphia judges, in particular, were reluctant to order restitution and more likely to reduce court fines and fees out of a belief that many defendants just cannot afford to pay.

"You can't get blood out of a stone," one Philadelphia judge wrote in response to an anonymous statewide survey cited in the study. "When you have rapes, aggravated assaults, gunpoint robberies by those with no skills who have never held a job, what good is restitution? They will be in jail for five to 10 years and have no assets.

"It's the exception, not the rule, in the major cases in a large city."

Levin said "the rule" leaves victims wanting.

"It's fair to say that people are very frustrated. They're not seeing their money. They don't understand they're one of thousands," she said.

Most defendants are ordered to pay relatively small sums. In a sampling assembled by court officials at The Inquirer's request, only 269 of all offenders convicted in 2008 were ordered to pay restitution of more than $5,000.

And of that group, a third had paid nothing by late 2010.

According to the records, two of those who did make payments came up with only 34 cents for restitution in their last installment. They owed $10,597 and $73,090.

"People think, 'I've been a victim. I'm owed this money.' The reality of the situation is you may never see the money," Levin said. "Older folks say to us, 'I'll be dead before I see the money,' and, unfortunately, that may be the reality."

Jerry Bolzak, executive director of Northeast Victim Service, said offenders felt little pressure to pay.

In many cases, defendants may complete their jail and probationary sentences with restitution debts unpaid. And Philadelphia judges, as Dempsey attests, are extremely reluctant to jail someone over money.

"It's not going to be a trigger mechanism to get probation or parole revoked, so it's toothless," Bolzak said. "The defendant may just decide, 'I know you're waiting for that $1,000. You can wait until hell freezes over.' "

According to some experts, getting tougher works.

In New Jersey, criminologist Weisburd, working with other researchers, set out in 2000 to test how to force offenders to come up with money.

Randomly placing convicted defendants into different pools, he compared a group with routine oversight with one in which the offenders were warned that their probation would be revoked if they didn't pay. In the group put under pressure, the number paying their full obligation tripled.

"Getting people to pay fines is relatively easy compared to most of the things we want to do," Weisburd said, referring to changing criminal behavior.

Yet to see a penny

Surjani Grauer was volunteering at her daughter's prekindergarten classroom when another mother stole her purse.

School surveillance cameras captured the crime on tape.

Video images show Colleen Ward departing Taggart Elementary in South Philadelphia with two purses on her arm - her own and Grauer's.

In August 2009, Ward was found guilty of theft and was sentenced to six months' probation and ordered to pay $1,339 in restitution.

Grauer has yet to see a penny.

"I want justice in this country," said Grauer, a native of Indonesia.

In the theft, Grauer lost her wallet, credit cards, $500 in cash, and her immigration-status "green card." To replace the card, she had to hire an immigration lawyer and pay a $370 federal fee.

The judge ordered Ward to reimburse Grauer for those expenses.

Court records show that Ward made several payments totaling $150. But the money went to pay court fees, not to Grauer.

The records show that Ward's payments were divided in several ways, including a "bail poundage" fee to the city for administering her bail and a charge for the bench warrant issued when she skipped court for a time.

Penn State professor Ruback, in a study last year, found that in Philadelphia, there were 82 possible financial sanctions that could be levied against defendants - with the typical court case having 22.

Levin, of the District Attorney's Office, said the slicing and dicing can make payments "trickle to almost nothing."

Victims, she said, become "very frustrated that they often get very small checks. It's not unheard of that a victim could get a check for $7."

Ward, 36, a single mother and unemployed dental assistant, said she was upset to learn that Grauer had gotten nothing.

"I've been making payments," she said. "I find that very important. I'm a little behind right now, but I've been paying."

Grauer and her husband said the system had let them down.

"She was on probation," John Grauer said of Ward. "Probation's up. I'm never going to see a dime."

Lancaster County succeeds

While Philadelphia has lagged, some other counties in the state have tackled the issue forcefully.

In Lancaster County, Chris Reed, supervisor of the 13-member Collections Enforcement Unit, said his county stresses results.

"Just because things are tough and tight right now doesn't mean you are excused from everything," Reed said.

Lancaster County uses both carrots and sticks to extract the money. One tactic: shortening a term of probation if an offender pays up.

"You'd be surprised. You have to find the point that motivates someone to do something," Reed said. "Once you find that one thing, they find a way to find a job, keep a job. Sometimes family will help them out. They usually have the resources to do what they have to do."

In Philadelphia, court officials two years ago hired a Texas firm, ACS, a part of Xerox, to go after debtors.

Under the contract, ACS was to pursue 170,000 debtors who owed $272 million. In return, it would get to keep about 17 percent of what it collected.

Of the $10 million that offenders are now paying yearly, about a quarter of it is drummed up by ACS. The firm has about 15 staffers, including 10 collectors working phones, who go after the money.

John Polk, head of the collections unit, said his collectors use a "soft" approach, essentially imploring people to agree to a payment plan. The company does not garnishee wages.

He said ACS figured it would collect only 1 or 2 percent of the money owed.

"This type of debt has a fairly low recovery rate," Polk said. "It's hard to find these people. It's hard to get money out of them if you do find them."

Headstone's cost

Deborah Schell knows all about that. After her 81-year-old mother, Pernella Baker, was struck and killed while crossing a street in West Philadelphia, a judge ordered the driver to pay $2,200 for the cost of her headstone. The restitution payment was part of the driver's sentence; he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was ordered to serve 111/2 to 23 months in prison.

Schell, 53, has been paid nothing.

"I think it's a disgrace," she said.

Thomas Birl shares her frustration.

Long after an attacker broke his jaw in three places and shattered his eye sockets, Birl is still waiting for restitution payments toward his medical bills.

In the summer of 2008, he was helping a friend move out of an apartment she shared with a former boyfriend when the boyfriend came home and attacked him from behind.

Birl, 41, a jazz and gospel pianist, spent three days in the hospital. He had no insurance and ran up $66,000 in medical bills.

Ronald Tomas, now 39, pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to probation and a course in anger management.

He was also ordered to pay Birl's medical expenses.

Tomas could not be located.

Public records say he has lived at at least six Philadelphia addresses in the last decade. At his latest address, a security worker said last week that he wasn't there.

Birl said he did not object to probation for Tomas because prosecutors told him that if Tomas did not go to jail, he would be free to get a job and earn money for restitution.

Two years later, Birl is still waiting for the money. And he is being dunned regularly by the hospital.

The experience baffles him.

"He was ordered to pay it," Birl said. "I figured if you have a judge's order, you enforce it."


To read The Inquirer's investigative series on the city criminal-justice system, use interactive media, and see follow-up articles, go to www.philly.com/courts


Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips

at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Luke Harold, Steven Jiwanmall, and Dylan Purcell.

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