Fines and Restitution:

Improvement Needed in How Offenders' Payment Schedules Are Determined

GGD-98-89: Published: Jun 29, 1998. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed court orders of fines and restitution imposed on federal criminal offenders, focusing on: (1) identifying guidance available to probation officers on how to determine payment schedules for offenders who received orders to pay fines to the government and restitution to their victims; and (2) assessing, in two judicial districts, how offenders' payment schedules were actually determined while under court supervision.

GAO noted that: (1) in the Central District of California and the Northern District of Texas, probation officers who supervised offenders lacked clear, specific policy guidance for determining how much offenders should pay each month towards their court-ordered fines and restitution; (2) in the absence of such clear policy guidance, the officers in the two districts GAO reviewed developed their own methods for determining how much offenders could pay monthly; (3) these methods were often based on subjective decisions not associated with financial criteria; (4) GAO identified issues of inconsistency and apparent inequity in 62 percent of the Central District of California installment-payment cases GAO reviewed; (5) the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) has provided guidance to probation officers on how to determine payment schedules; (6) however, the guidance, which is focused on what information to collect and how to collect it, does not specify how probation officers are to analyze financial information provided by offenders to determine how much, or if all, of the fine or restitution can be paid each month; (7) the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) offered financial investigation training to probation officers that provided more specific guidance on determining repayment schedules than that contained in the AOUSC manuals and publications; (8) although AOUSC viewed the training as reflecting its policies, it did not make this clear to probation officers; (9) moreover, the FJC training is voluntary, and not all officers took it; (10) the inconsistent methods used by probation officers for determining an offender's monthly payment schedule resulted in apparently inequitable treatment of offenders and reduced or slowed payments to the Crime Victims Fund and to crime victims; and (11) although GAO's detailed reviews were limited to two judicial districts and cannot be generalized beyond those districts, the fact that probation officers in other judicial districts are working with the same limited guidance and lack of financial standards as the districts GAO visited creates the risk that the types of inconsistencies and apparent inequities GAO found could occur nationwide.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The AOUSC should establish, as policy, specific guidance on how probation officers should determine how offenders should pay their fines and restitution, including criteria establishing what types of assets should be considered for immediate lump-sum payments or substantial payments; how installment schedules should be established; and the type and amount or range of expenses that should ordinarily be considered necessary when determining the amount of payments under installment schedules.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts completed work on revised guidelines for probation officers in response to GAO's recommendations. A final set of guidelines was issued on September 19, 2000.

    Recommendation: The AOUSC should establish as policy that personal financial statements should be obtained on a regular, timely basis, such as every 6 months or when circumstances change, from offenders on installment payment schedules.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts completed work on revised guidelines for probation officers in response to GAO's recommendations. A final set of guidelines was issued in September 2000.

    Recommendation: The AOUSC should implement procedures to ensure that probation officers are aware of and recognize the guidelines as AOUSC policy.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts completed work on revised guidelines for probation officers in response to the recommendations. A final set of guidelines was issued in September 2000.

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