Crime Doesn’t Pay(back): A Houston Press Special Report on Court-Ordered Restitutions in Texas

More than 90 percent of Texas parolees walk away without paying off what the state ordered them to.

Vrnda Bailey, convicted of theft, paid $505 out of $198,781; Corey Thompson, convicted of manslaughter while driving drunk, paid $378 out of $49,047; thief Donnie Ray Duncan only paid $85 out of a court order to repay $18,250. Some offenders, such as Glenn Boudreaux, who owed $576, Bradley Garrison, who owed $2,000, Lawander Hood, who owed $6,600, and several others never paid a nickel.

Kahan says the key is looking at "those offenders who parole rewarded with a discharge, kind of like a magna cum laude diploma, even though they were a total and utter failure."

You can almost see his shoulders shrug when Stuart Jenkins, Director of the state parole division, is asked about discharges for parolees who failed to pay off their ­restitution.

Houston crime victims advocate Andy Kahan says ensuring victims receive all their restitution should be priority No. 1.
Daniel Kramer
Houston crime victims advocate Andy Kahan says ensuring victims receive all their restitution should be priority No. 1.

"We've had some cases where that got by, which is definitely not good," he says. "The expectation is that they pay it off, but sometimes, realistically, it just doesn't happen."

This doesn't surprise "John," a parole officer who will not reveal his name for fear of being fired.

"It's a broken system," he says. "I feel sorry for the victims because they've had harm come to them and the offender needs to pay. But the only thing parole wants is for individuals to discharge. At least that's what I see. It's a broken wheel and it can't be fixed. They just don't care."

In early August, the Press requested offender names and restitution data from TDCJ for parolees throughout the entire state over the past five years. Initially, the department's attorney denied the request, in accordance with an opinion from the Texas Attorney General's office.

After waiting more than two months and paying a total of $821.80, the Houston Press did receive some bare statistics from TDCJ still showing the magnitude of the problem.

Across the entire state, 90.3 percent of offenders who were successfully discharged from 2003 to 2008 still owe their victims restitution. Fewer than 10 percent paid off all their restitution. Out of the more than $43 million those discharged parolees were ordered to pay, the parole division only collected 5.3 percent of it, or $2.3 million (see "Bad Debt").

Kahan is upset not only over the numbers but also about the high cost and lengthy struggle it took both him, and separately the Press, to access the data.

"You would think that the information should be readily available," he says. "It just shows that they really don't want the public to know what's going on. And now we know why, because the reality is that some offenders don't even pay a dime and they're counted as a success. It's not a priority in this state and it should be priority No. 1. So the last thing the criminal justice system wants out there is the truth."

The Press sent Jenkins the numbers provided by the criminal justice department, but he says he won't comment on the statistics released by his own agency because he can't vouch for how the information was calculated.

There are no national collection statistics available, say Susan Howley, Director of Public Policy for the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington D.C. Some states make data easily accessible, she says; many do not.

"Even when you find a total of restitution collected," she says, "and most states don't even have that readily available, it's never tied back to what was ordered."

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute in Austin, who has studied and written about restitution, estimates, however, that collection rates across the country hover around 33 percent­.

"It's a huge problem," he says. "It's a violation of somebody's rights and they need to be made whole. And for many victims, it's not just the money. It brings closure and a sense of justice."

Roz Rockowitz and her husband, Ed, used to own a small sports memorabilia shop on Long Island, New York. They were comfortable, but not wealthy, earning enough to take several vacations a year and afford a modest four-­bedroom home. They lived a contented, middle-class existence.

Then they ran into Bryan Woodson of Deer Park, and the life they knew ended forever.

Rockowitz says Woodson approached her husband in 1996 with a deal to unload baseball cards and other merchandise for a huge profit. All they needed to do was front Woodson the goods and he would later forward the eager couple their earnings. The New Yorkers gave Woodson nearly $80,000 worth of supplies to sell. But they never got their cut.

As it turned out, Woodson was scamming loads of folks. By the time a Harris County jury convicted Woodson in 2003 of theft, 17 people from across the country had their hands out waiting to be paid back. In all, Woodson was ordered to pay nearly $1.7 million in restitution, $77,000 of it to the Rockowitzes.

"It hurt us terribly," says Roz Rockowitz. "It cost us our business; it buried us alive. We're middle-income people and it put us in debt because we were financially responsible for paying for the merchandise that we sent him. Now we've had to close down our business and it's very difficult to make ends meet. We're both disabled and my husband suffers from depression. You put your blood and guts into developing something and then you get it all ripped apart. What he did to us is unforgivable."

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That was a joke and a slap in the faces of the victims family. Must get Rick Dingleperry out of office.

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