Robin Bostic is the second vice president and legislative chairperson of the Virginia Victim Assistance Network.
Restitution needs to be protected in the commonwealth. There is legislation before the Virginia General Assembly that would significantly improve collection of restitution, and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) should sign the bill when it gets to his desk.
The Virginia Victim Assistance Network, through our victim advocates and other allied professionals in the Virginia criminal-justice system, has seen people robbed of their most precious heirlooms, have irreparable harm done to their bodies and have their sense of security forever altered. This damage cannot be reversed, and it often cannot be assigned a monetary value that would fully replace what was taken or damaged. As victim advocates, we usually can’t get back a grandmother’s wedding band. We can’t unbreak bones or remove scars. We can’t make people feel safe in their homes again. But what we can do is seek justice — and see that restitution is ordered and paid.
The bill has broad support in the legislature, as well as with the Virginia State Crime Commission and victims’ rights and advocacy groups. In 2017, the General Assembly passed legislation that would have required defendants to remain on indefinite probation until restitution had been paid. But then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed that legislation because it would have kept people who owed restitution on probation potentially for the rest of their lives. That language has been removed in the new bill .
Given the structure of our criminal-justice system, restitution is not ordered until the end of the case, which is usually months or even years after the crime has occurred. This delay means that victims must pay out of their own pockets to fix damages done during the commission of crimes. So unless a victim wants to face a cold winter and higher electric bills, she will have to pay to fix the window shattered by bullets. Unless a victim wants to stay out of work for months and risk his financial well- being, he will have to seek medical assistance and pay the hospital bills.
These financial setbacks are not small, and they are the epitome of unexpected expenses. No one plans to spend $100 on a door broken by a burglar; no one saves $500 for medical bills that come from being beaten up by a spouse; no one reserves $1,000 to pay the oral surgeon, who demands payment at time of surgery to replace damaged teeth. Consider the arson victims who are left with nothing but the clothes on their back; or the victim of a DUI hit-and-run that leaves someone so severely injured that she is unable to maintain a livelihood. All of this impacts not only the victims but also their families.
As advocates, we have worked with multiple victims in cases in which one offender causes an insurmountable amount of damage. For example: the victim whose car is stolen, through no fault of her own, and as a result her insurance company is required to pay for the severe injuries suffered by multiple victims who were hit by the offender. This causes her insurance to pay out the maximum amount allowable under her policy for their injuries. Not only will she then have to buy a new vehicle, but also she will still have to pay off the current loan on the wrecked vehicle and will more than likely lose her insurance coverage.
So we are already asking victims to carry a heavy burden by spending the money to fix what was damaged, broken or stolen by the person who attacked them. Thus, asking victims to not only put off repayment for these expenses but also risk never being repaid at all is, quite simply, unfair and unjust.
The legislation before the General Assembly emphasizes the importance of restitution and helps ensure that we do not have to ask our victims to take this additional risk. It shows them that the court system can protect them and make them at least somewhat whole financially. It helps give them back some of what was lost to criminal activity. We are certainly sympathetic to circumstances that lead to criminal activity, but if we are to expect our criminal-justice system to bring about meaningful changes in criminal activity, we must empower it to hold the convicted accountable for restitution.
Making amends holds a place among the 12 steps of substance-abuse recovery because it requires people to reflect on the harm they have caused and to take ownership of it by admitting it and trying to make it right. Restitution occupies this same space. It helps offenders reflect on the harm they’ve done to victims and their community, and to take ownership by paying back what they owe. This bill will have a positive impact on the lives of victims across the commonwealth and address the importance of restitution while also balancing the concerns of an offender’s ability to pay. Allowing courts to monitor payment not only helps ensure that victims get repaid but also helps the criminal-justice system get to more meaningful and permanent outcomes; isn’t that what we’re all after?
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