By PETER CAMERON for Wausau Pilot & Review
Imagine someone steals from you. Then they are caught, and a court sentences them to maybe a little jail time, some probation, and orders the offender to pay back what they took from you.
Back on track, right?
But in Wisconsin, when an offender completes their full sentence, that order for pay back, called restitution, changes from a criminal judgment to a civil one. That can mean instead of having the muscle of the criminal justice system, like the Department of Corrections, helping you collect, you are now responsible for recouping your money from the person who robbed or stole from you.
“So you can imagine what a difficult and traumatic process that could be for a victim,” Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon said.
In the first five months of 2021, offenders in Marathon County paid about $13,000 in restitution while they were on court supervision, the district attorney said. But more than $100,000 in restitution orders have been converted to civil judgments so far this year.
“I have concerns as a prosecutor that we as a system are not providing mechanisms for effective restitution collection,” the district attorney said. “Whether that fix is legislative or otherwise, I think that’s something that there needs to be attention drawn to.”
Marsy’s Law, the 2020 voter-approved amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution which aims to strengthen the rights of crime victims, states that they must “be provided with assistance collecting restitution.”
But the amendment doesn’t specify who should help victims receive restitution, or how, Wetzsteon noted.
In Dodge County, the clerk of courts has stepped in with her own solution. Lynn Hron, the clerk of courts there, said her office noticed that the criminal justice system was not doing a good job collecting restitution.
“We thought we could do a better job, and we are,” Hron said.
The clerk of courts has some legal authority to do this according to state law, which says “If the defendant is not placed on probation or sentenced to prison, the court may order that restitution be paid to the clerk of court for transfer to the appropriate person.”
As a government body, the clerk of courts can use the state’s debt collection agency, which can do things like intercept tax returns and garnish the wages of offenders who aren’t paying.
“Because they are all over the state, they know where these people are better than I do,” Hron said.
Clerk of courts offices across the state regularly use the state debt collection agency to grab court fines and fees from tardy offenders, Hron said.
Now her office is flexing its muscles to help victims. When Dodge County started this process four and half years ago, the office was collecting about 20% of the criminal financial obligations, Hron said. It’s now collecting more than 80%.
Should other counties like Marathon do this?
“If they have the staff available to do it,” Hron said. “I have excellent financial staff. They have to have time to do it. I see the benefits to doing it.”
Shirley Lang, the clerk of courts in Marathon County, said while her office has never collected restitution, she is open to the idea. With caveats.
“I would need extra staff to do that,” she said. “That honestly would be quite a chore.”
She also noted that the Marathon County District Attorney’s Office, which already collects some restitution, has access to the state debt collection agency and could take the lead on the issue.
Wetzsteon noted that the Marathon County Clerk of Courts already uses that agency.
“As a matter of justice, how do we continue to accept a system where the Clerk of Courts Office is using State Debt Collection Initiatives to collect outstanding court costs while in the same case a victim has not been paid restitution, has restitution converted to a civil judgment, and left on their own to collect outstanding restitution?” she asked.
Either way, Wisconsin’s Constitution says crime victims must be helped in getting the money that is owed to them.
“Are we doing the best job we can in this collection process?” Wetzsteon asked. “With all that we’ve just said, my answer is no.”