Compensate victims

Under the Oregon Constitution, crime victims have the right to restitution when they lose money or property or are injured as the result of a crime. Too often, however, Oregon courts do not order restitution, and when they do, often it is never collected, even when the defendant can afford it.

House Bill 3066 would start a pilot program modeled after successful restitution programs in other states. Lawmakers should pass it and, if it works in the selected counties where it is undertaken, make it permanent statewide.

In 2003, the Legislature required district attorneys to investigate crime victims' economic losses and present the evidence to the courts. The legislation also required judges to order restitution as part of sentencing when evidence was presented.

Last year, the Secretary of State's office audited the restitution system and found it wanting.

Restitution was ordered in only about half the appropriate cases. In addition, although judges ordered $50 million in restitution statewide in 2010, just $6.5 million was collected.

There are a number of reasons for this, primarily the age-old problem of the Legislature ordering something done but providing no money to pay for it. District attorneys told the auditors they don't have the staff to document victims' losses or investigate defendants' ability to pay.

Judges are willing to order restitution, but only if they are confident the person being sentenced has the resources to pay. The only way judges know this is if prosecutors show them evidence.

HB 3066 would use a $1.8 million loan from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Account to hire restitution clerks for district attorney's offices in selected counties. The clerks would research and document victims' losses and defendants' ability to pay, and provide that information to prosecuting attorneys before sentencing hearings.

The state Justice Department would hire collection agents who would be assigned to work in the participating counties to make sure convicted defendants make restitution payments.

A portion of the money collected would go to pay off the loan after victims were compensated.

This program has the potential to greatly increase compensation to victims of crime without placing a burden on the state general fund. Money for the pilot program would come from an existing fund and would be reimbursed with a portion of the money paid by convicted defendants.

Lawmakers should pass HB 3066 without delay.

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