Pa. victim advocate says lawmakers must improve restitution law

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Pennsylvania’s victim advocate is pushing state lawmakers to reform the restitution law.

Jennifer Storm had a long conversation Tuesday with Eric Kessler, a Dauphin County man who says it’ll take 95 years for a convicted thief to pay back the money he stole.

“It’s the area where we fail victims the most,” Storm said.

She said she understands Kessler’s frustration because she often speaks with other victims of theft.

“A lot of victims feel incredibly betrayed by the restitution mechanism in the commonwealth because there’s absolutely no enforcement,” she said.

Pennsylvania’s 67 counties do not have a uniform policy, nor is it required for each county to publicly post a repayment schedule or policy for restitution. A task force conducted a special report in 2013 and made 47 recommendations, and many were included in five bills that passed the state House.

When the state Senate reconvenes on Sept. 26, Storm believes lawmakers have an opportunity to drastically reform the restitution system.

“That’s what I’m hoping will happen with these bills,” she said.

Storm said House Bill 1070, sponsored by Rep. Dom Costa (D-Allegheny), would have the greatest impact. While it would not require a uniform policy, it would require county courts to create restitution guidelines that have state oversight.

“You can’t create one structure that’s going to work for all 67 counties,” Storm said, “but saying to all 67 counties you have to have a structure is a good first step.”

Storm said counties with productive and successful restitution programs would be more than willing to help struggling counties set up a framework. She said a “cost contempt” program in York and Lancaster counties has proven beneficial to most victims.

“[Clerk of courts] look into the defender’s wages, assets if there’s any money and try to the degree possible make them pay at least a minimum of what they can,” she said.

While many convicted felons struggle to find higher paying jobs to meet restitution goals, Storm said there are others who can afford to pay more and should be required to do so.

“You bring them back and re-evaluate everything,” she said. “Look at the payment plan, look at any new assets, look at their employment, and then say, OK, you should be paying more. I’m going to require you to pay X.”

While it is not currently in a proposed bill, Storm would also like to see a policy like that in the Corrections Department. An inmate ordered to pay restitution automatically has 20 percent of their wages or family donations taken from their account for their victims.

Storm said lawmakers have an opportunity this fall to make it right for victims. In her experience, many are shy, embarrassed, or humiliated to share their story or fight for their rights.

“They want their justice and they shouldn’t have to put their story out there to receive the justice that the courts have promised them,” she said.

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