Federal Courts:

Differences Exist In Ordering Fines and Restitution

GGD-99-70: Published: May 6, 1999. Publicly Released: May 6, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on federal offenders who were ordered to pay criminal fines and victim restitution, focusing on: (1) the percentage of offenders who were ordered to pay fines or restitution in fiscal year (FY) 1997 and those who were not; (2) differences across judicial circuits and districts in the percent of offenders who were ordered to pay fines or restitution and those who were not; and (3) officials' opinions about possible reasons for those differences.

GAO noted that: (1) while many factors influenced whether an offender was ordered to pay a fine or restitution, the judicial circuit or district where the offender was sentenced was a major factor during fiscal year (FY) 1997; (2) most of the approximately 48,000 federal offenders sentenced under United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines in FY 1997 were not ordered by the courts to pay a fine or restitution; (3) the percentage of offenders who were ordered to pay fines or restitution varied greatly across the 12 federal judicial circuits and 94 federal judicial districts; (4) across districts, the percentage of offenders who were ordered to pay fines ranged from 1 percent to 84 percent, and the percentage of the offenders who were ordered to pay restitution ranged from 3 percent to 49 percent; (5) an important factor in determining whether an offender was ordered to pay a fine or restitution was the type of offense committed; (6) while 6 percent of offenders sentenced for immigration offenses were ordered to pay a fine, almost one-third of property offenders were ordered to pay; (7) besides the type of offense committed, other factors that were associated with whether an offender was ordered to pay included factors such as sex, race, education, citizenship, length of sentence, and type of sentence imposed, such as prison, probation, or an alternative; (8) even after controlling for all of these factors for four specific types of offenses in GAO's multivariate statistical analyses, the judicial circuit or district in which the offender was sentenced continued to be a major factor in determining whether an offender was ordered to pay a fine or restitution; (9) some court officials and prosecutors provided explanations of why differences existed among the districts; (10) some attributed the differences to the nature and type of offenses committed or types of offenders sentenced in the districts; (11) some officials believed that the culture in the judicial district among the prosecutors and court officials contributed to whether offenders were fined or ordered to pay restitution; and (12) since the imposition of restitution for certain offenses became mandatory with the passage of Mandatory Victims Restitution Act (MVRA), the percentage of offenders, overall, who were ordered to pay restitution during FY 1997 actually declined from 26 percent of offenders sentenced for crimes committed before April 24, 1996, to 12 percent of offenders sentenced for crimes committed on or after April 24, 1996, when MVRA became effective.

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