When Annalise LaHood's father died eight years ago, she hired a Rockville lawyer to settle an estate she estimates was worth about $300,000. Instead, the lawyer raided both the estate and a trust left for her schizophrenic brother, leaving her with 36 cents.
The lawyer was found guilty and ordered to serve five years' probation and pay back the money. LaHood's dreams of using the money to expand the Montgomery County nonprofit organization she and her husband run for disabled children were dashed.
As for the money, she's still waiting for much of it.
"The time involved, the anxiety, the anger and the frustration has been debilitating," LaHood told a Maryland House of Delegates committee yesterday.
Statistics compiled by the state's collection agency show that LaHood is not alone. Over the past seven years, more than 62,000 cases involving money owed to Maryland crime victims have been turned over to the state's collection agency. Only a small fraction of the total amount owed has been collected: 53,000 cases are still open, and victims are still owed more than $63 million.
Now, some lawmakers are hoping to fix a system they say is broken. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery) has introduced legislation to permit Maryland judges to extend a convicted criminal's period of probation for as long as it takes to repay court-ordered restitution.
Under current law, probation is limited to five years, during which time a judge can send criminals back to jail for failing to make payments to their victims. But when the probation is terminated, that stick disappears. Victims are left to rely on the state's collection agency or to take the perpetrator to civil court, a situation that is further complicated when former convicts try to hide or spend their assets or move from job to job, Simmons said.
"What happens is, the system basically penalizes small crooks who might be expected to pay the little that they stole back in three to five years, and it rewards the large crooks -- people who cannot and do not pay the money back in that time."
Simmons, a lawyer, has a personal stake in the matter: He was the victim of embezzlement four years ago when two of his employees stole about $200,000. Both were convicted. One is serving a five-year probation, paying him $200 a month. When her probation ends, Simmons said, she will still owe him approximately $40,000.
"It was devastating to me," Simmons said. "The only way we can encourage people to make restitution is the fear of going back to jail. Nothing tends to focus the mind more."
Simmons said his bill is supported by the Maryland Judicial Conference and the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association. At the hearing yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said Simmons's bill will help conform victims' expectations of full reimbursement to reality.
Judith Sachwald, the director of the state's parole and probation division, said her agency has no way of knowing how much it collects before sending restitution debts to the state's collection agency because it is operating with an antiquated computer system. She hopes the General Assembly will restore $2 million to upgrade the system, but she said Simmons's bill on its own won't require additional staffing or money.
Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma have systems similar to the one proposed by Simmons. Still, he faced some hard questions from the committee, which must clear the bill if it is to be heard by the full House and the Senate. And while Henry Raymond, the director of the state's Central Collections Unit, said that Simmons's bill will help, he added that it won't necessarily be a cure.
Many criminals ordered to pay restitution aren't well-educated and have difficulty finding jobs after a conviction, he said. Part of the reason for his agency's track record, he said, is that "we're collecting small amounts over a long period of time -- if individuals had more resources and property, we'd be doing better."
Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief of staff, Steven L. Kreseski, declined to comment on the specifics of Simmons's bill. But he said there's no doubt that the system needs improvement.