Federal Criminal Restitution:

Most Debt Is Outstanding and Oversight of Collections Could Be Improved

GAO-18-203: Published: Feb 2, 2018. Publicly Released: Feb 2, 2018.

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    INFOGRAPHIC: Compensating the Victims of Federal Crimes

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What GAO Found

Officials from selected U.S. Attorney's Offices (USAO) stated that they document requests for restitution in case files and employ other internal controls, such as the use of templates and forms, throughout the prosecution process to ensure that prosecutors request restitution as appropriate. GAO's analysis of U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) data—an agency within the judiciary—showed that information on restitution orders was available for 95 percent of all offenders sentenced from fiscal years 2014 through 2016. Specifically, 214,578 federal offenders were sentenced during this time period and restitution was ordered for 33,158, or 15 percent, of those offenders. Collectively, courts ordered these offenders to pay $33.9 billion in restitution. Most federal offenders sentenced during these years were sentenced for immigration or drug-related offenses. In interviews, USAO officials stated that these offenses do not typically have victims requiring restitution. GAO found that data on reasons why restitution was not ordered were incomplete for 5 percent of all offenders sentenced from fiscal years 2014 through 2016. Determining why data on restitution orders are incomplete may inform the judiciary of the cause of the incomplete data and any efforts needed to improve USSC data.

GAO's analysis of Department of Justice (DOJ) data showed that USAOs collected $2.95 billion in restitution debt in fiscal years 2014 through 2016, see figure below. However, at the end of fiscal year 2016, $110 billion in previously ordered restitution remained outstanding, and USAOs identified $100 billion of that outstanding debt as uncollectible due to offenders' inability to pay.

Collected and Outstanding Criminal Restitution as of the End of Fiscal Years 2014 through 2016

HL_5 - 101413

DOJ identified improving debt collection—including restitution—as a major management initiative in its 2014-2018 Strategic Plan. While DOJ is developing analytical tools to monitor the collection of restitution, it has not established performance measures or goals. Performance measures and goals would allow DOJ to gauge USAOs' success in collecting restitution and, by extension, the department's success in achieving a major management initiative.

Why GAO Did This Study

One of the goals of federal criminal restitution is to restore victims of federal crimes to the position they occupied before the crime was committed by providing compensation. Various entities within the federal government are involved in the process of requesting, ordering, and collecting restitution for crime victims, including DOJ and the judiciary.

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2016 includes a provision for GAO to review the federal criminal restitution process for fiscal years 2014 through 2016. This report addresses, among other things: (1) the extent to which information is available on restitution requested by DOJ and ordered by courts; (2) the amount of restitution debt DOJ collected and the amount that remains outstanding; and, (3) the extent to which DOJ has conducted oversight on the collection of restitution. GAO analyzed laws, policies and procedures as well as USSC data on restitution orders and DOJ data on restitution collected from fiscal years 2014 through 2016. GAO also selected a non-generalizable sample of six federal judicial districts based on restitution collections and spoke with USAO officials and federal probation officers.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations. GAO is making one to the judiciary to determine why data on restitution orders are incomplete. GAO is making two recommendations to DOJ, including one to implement performance measures and goals for the collection of restitution. The judiciary and DOJ concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Administrative Office of United States Courts reported in March 2018 that the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and USSC planned to send a joint letter to all district judges and relevant staff, sharing the GAO report in full and explaining GAO's analysis and findings about USSC data. The Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and the USSC planned to ask for input from judges on the data issue raised in GAO's report. We will continue to follow up on these actions to assess the extent to which these actions, and any other actions taken, address our recommendation.

    Recommendation: Judiciary officials, including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, USSC, and the Judicial Conference, should determine why USSC data on the reasons restitution was not ordered are incomplete. Additionally, if warranted based on this information, judiciary officials should take action to ensure USSC data records include all required information for orders of restitution. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: United States Sentencing Commission

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Administrative Office of United States Courts reported in March 2018 that the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and USSC planned to send a joint letter to all district judges and relevant staff, sharing the GAO report in full and explaining GAO's analysis and findings about USSC data. The Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and the USSC planned to ask for input from judges on the data issue raised in GAO's report. We will continue to follow up on these actions to assess the extent to which these actions, and any other actions taken, address our recommendation.

    Recommendation: Judiciary officials, including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, USSC, and the Judicial Conference, should determine why USSC data on the reasons restitution was not ordered are incomplete. Additionally, if warranted based on this information, judiciary officials should take action to ensure USSC data records include all required information for orders of restitution. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Administrative Office of United States Courts reported in March 2018 that the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and USSC planned to send a joint letter to all district judges and relevant staff, sharing the GAO report in full and explaining GAO's analysis and findings about USSC data. The Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and the USSC planned to ask for input from judges on the data issue raised in GAO's report. We will continue to follow up on these actions to assess the extent to which these actions, and any other actions taken, address our recommendation.

    Recommendation: Judiciary officials, including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, USSC, and the Judicial Conference, should determine why USSC data on the reasons restitution was not ordered are incomplete. Additionally, if warranted based on this information, judiciary officials should take action to ensure USSC data records include all required information for orders of restitution. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2018, DOJ reported that it had identified an analytical tool that it believes will help to address this recommendation. According to DOJ, this tool will allow DOJ and USAOs to assess USAO restitution collection efforts and results based on relevant factors. According to DOJ, this analytical tool may be available by the end of calendar year 2018. DOJ further reported that while the tool is being developed, DOJ will work to develop a core set of measures or goals designed to assess fairly the USAO debt collection efforts. DOJ reported that if the analytical tool is operational by the end of calendar year 2018, DOJ anticipates piloting its implementation of performance measures/ goals during the second half of calendar year 2018. We will continue to follow up on these actions to assess the extent to which these actions, and any other actions taken, address our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve oversight of the collection of restitution, the Attorney General should develop and implement performance measures and goals for each USAO related to the collection of restitution, and measure progress towards meeting those goals. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2018, DOJ reported that the Department is willing to explore possibilities for gathering information on reasons why forfeited assets were not used for victims. Based on the results of this exploration, the Department will assess whether any adjustments to its current practices are warranted. We will continue to follow up on these actions to assess the extent to which these actions, and any other actions taken, address our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve oversight of the collection of restitution, the Attorney General should, in cases where forfeited assets were not used to compensate victims, gather information on reasons why forfeited assets were not used for victims. If warranted based on this information, take action to increase the use of forfeited assets to compensate eligible victims. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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