SACRAMENTO — Since Orange County courts launched an expanded restitution program in 1980, thousands of misdemeanor offenders have been made to pay for their crimes--literally.
But hundreds of burglars, vandals and other misdoers have been spared part of that responsibility because the maximum surcharge California courts are allowed to tack onto the offender's debt will not cover administrative and operational costs of court-ordered restitution programs.
In fact, several counties have shunned the idea of starting similar programs because there is no way to cover administrative costs with the 2% fee presently allowed, said state Sen. Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim).
This week, a bill by Royce to allow counties to charge fees up to 15% over the amount of restitution passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, 9 to 0, and advanced to the full Senate. Restitution is paid by the defendant to the victim.
The volunteers who run the restitution program in four of Orange County's Municipal Court divisions are overworked and understaffed, officials say.
Aware of the workload, many of the county's judges are avoiding restitution orders, said Barbara Phillips, who runs the county's 6-year-old Victim Witness Assistance Program.
The nonprofit program oversees restitution orders under a contract with the county.
Royce said his bill will take "the burden of funding this program off the back of the taxpayers."
"The current 2% cap on restitution collection fees is too low," added Royce, who is carrying the bill at the request of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. "It means that the taxpayers are being asked to fund a program that should be funded by convicted criminals themselves."
The restitution program operates in all Orange County Municipal Court branches except Fullerton. It started in the Westminster court in 1980, expanded to courts in Laguna Niguel and Santa Ana in 1981 and moved into the Newport Beach court last year, said Phillips, a former Montana state judge who has run Orange County's Victim Witness Program since its inception.
During the first nine months of the current fiscal year, Phillips said, the program collected $763,000 in court-ordered restitution from offenders.
"But because we don't have staff . . . there are cases that we are not able to respond to," Phillips said.
The Victim Witness Program has only two full-time staffers, she said.
Besides the restitution service, the program is intended to provide crisis intervention counseling, educational programs about the justice system, court transportation for witnesses and moral support for crime victims.