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Look Who's Paying for Crime : Growing Number of Public and Private Programs Require Criminals to Compensate Their Victims

May 28, 1987|GARY LIBMAN

While a Los Angeles equipment rental company was closed for the weekend in 1981, two employees unlocked the gate, backed a truck into the yard and stole a 40-foot boom lift.

They drove the lift to a contractor, who bought it for $12,000 and used it for two years before police intervened. Although a court convicted the thieves, original owner Ben Hinkle faced the loss of wear and tear on the $28,000 lift and the deprivation of potential rent of $1,000 a month between 1981 and 1983.

A Los Angeles Superior Court provided compensation for Hinkle, however, under a little-known state program that requires probationers to make restitution to victims.

One thief became a fugitive, but the other has paid more than $4,000 en route to satisfying his $15,000 obligation during his three-year probation. The checks started at $110 per month and increased to $125, $150 and $200 along with the thief's ability to pay.

Hinkle's windfall is largely the result of a beefing up of a decades-old probation restitution program.

Efforts Are Proliferating

Similar efforts to help the victims of crime continue to proliferate as the crime victims' movement winds through its second decade. And the number and scope of services for victims is growing rapidly:

- In Batavia, N.Y., as part of a program that reconciles criminals and victims, a sniper meets face to face with the man he shot.

- In San Francisco, the Community United Against Violence helps gay men battered by their lovers, a group the legal system often fails to recognize.

- In Los Angeles, the Crime Victims Center organizes a bilingual, bicultural program to aid another often neglected group, Latinos.

- In San Diego, a psychologist develops a stress prevention program for police, cleanup crews, medical personnel, funeral directors and other participants in disasters.

Forty-four states, including California, provide financial assistance to victims. California requires probationers to make restitution to victims and, when that option is not feasible, pays individuals as much as $46,000 for physical or emotional damage. The money comes from a fund supported by fines against criminals.

A rising number of states also offer victims a voice in criminal justice proceedings. Forty-seven states, including California, allow victims to describe the effect of the crime upon them to sentencing judges, while 34 permit victims to express opinions at parole hearings.

Well-known organizations such as Victims for Victims, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Society's League Against Molestation advise victims of these rights. They head a list of about 5,000 victims' service groups nationally.

Further help is available in Los Angeles and 52 other California counties from the Victim-Witness Assistance Program, which intervenes in crises and helps victims understand the legal system and how to obtain state compensation.

Still, some experts fear that victims' programs are inadequate.

"There are services that victims don't qualify for," said political science professor Robert Elias of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. ". . . The rules (for victims' compensation programs) are extremely hard to satisfy.

". . . It's also not clear that victims are very useful to criminal justice personnel," said Elias, author of a recent study, "The Politics of Victimization." "Often victims are considered to be interferences. One main reason is that so many cases are plea bargained."

Others worry that the movement has made little penetration in minority communities, particularly black neighborhoods and Indian reservations, where the crime rate is high.

"We in the victims' movement have not done a good job of bringing our services to those communities," said John Stein, deputy director of the National Organization for Victim's Assistance.

The victims' movement traces its origins to the late '60s and early '70s, when it was spurred by growing disaffection with perceived judicial leniency. A second major force was the women's movement, with its breaking of the traditional silence surrounding rape and battering.

In Los Angeles County, one of the more recent effects of the movement was the reassigning of probationers who owed victims more than $10,000 to special case officers. The Probation Department also reduced the caseloads of the officers from 300 to 100, allowing them time to track down probationers who missed payments.

The officers may require probationers 90 days in arrears to appear before a judge, who can return them to jail. The officers can also demand more money for restitution when a probationer's salary increases.

Additionally, a 1985 law enables the department to intercept probationers' state tax refunds, and a more recent state law empowers the department to seek liens against a probationer's property.

Making the Collections

Using these methods, the handful of officers assigned to larger cases have collected an average of $122,000 per month since the program started 18 months ago.

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