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.

Woodson was paroled in June 2004 after serving 16 months of his 69-month prison sentence and is scheduled to be discharged in May. According to the limited parole records obtained through the Texas Public Information Act, in nearly four years as of last March, Woodson had paid back a total of $1,718, distributed among his victims. During that time, Rockowitz says she's received two checks totaling $106.

Today, Woodson still lives in Deer Park. He and his wife of 27 years share Woodson's mother's house. He says he works in the medical field, but won't say what he does or how much he earns. In addition to paying for utility bills at the house, gas for his car and his child's college tuition, Woodson says he makes sure to pay his restitution every month, an amount which he won't disclose.

"I just pay what I can pay," Woodson says. "I report every month, I pay my restitution and I do everything I'm supposed to. I need a car to drive to work, I've got a kid in college, so if they take that my kid would drop out of college and might wind up, who knows?"

Gregory Stewart is one of thousands of parolees successfully discharged despite not paying off his restitution.
Gregory Stewart is one of thousands of parolees successfully discharged despite not paying off his restitution.
Regina Cleggs and her nephew, Davonte Parker, remember family member Rick Galloway and say Texas's restitution system is a joke.
Ken Blaze
Regina Cleggs and her nephew, Davonte Parker, remember family member Rick Galloway and say Texas's restitution system is a joke.

Each month, Woodson says he visits his case officer and brings with him a money order made out to the state for his restitution payment. He also brings a separate money order for $18 a month in parole fees. The restitution then gets sent to a cashier in Huntsville, who forwards checks to the victims and keeps track of who's gotten what.

Once a prisoner is paroled, he sits down with his parole officer and completes a worksheet that asks whether the offender has a job, how much he is earning and what his minimum monthly bills are, says Jenkins. The officer also identifies whether the parolee has "luxury items" such as a cell phone, cable TV, the Internet and if the person smokes cigarettes, and looks at whether those items can be eliminated. The parole officer and the offender then determine a plausible monthly restitution payment, says Jenkins. There is no set formula and each case is different, he says.

Contrary to what many victims believe, the monthly payment is not based upon making sure all the restitution gets paid by the time the offender gets off parole.

"There's some amounts," says Jenkins, "where the likelihood of them paying it off while on parole, that likelihood just isn't going to happen. concern is more that offenders who owe restitution are paying the amount agreed upon with the officer versus the ability to get it paid off."

Rockowitz says this doesn't make any sense. Why, she wonders, do judges order restitution amounts that will never be paid, stringing victims along? And like Cleggs, Rockowitz doesn't understand why the parole division allows criminals to brush off judges' orders for restitution.

"It smacks of the ultimate hypocrisy," says Kahan. "A court order should be binding — no if, ands or buts."

The Press called several Harris County criminal judges looking for answers. Only District Court Judge Brian Rains decided to tackle the subject.

When asked if he expects offenders to comply with his restitution orders, Rains says, "You're hopeful that they pay it. You used the word 'expect,' but you're just hopeful. You tell victims there's no guarantee that you'll ever get it. I hate to be cynical about it, but we as judges and we as citizens are just hoping that the person is going to do what they've been asked to do."

Rains says that judges do not know anything about an offender's financial situation when ordering restitution. They just look at what the person owes and listen to recommendations from the ­prosecutor.

Woodson, who had as of March paid an average of a little more than $39 a month in restitution since being paroled, according to parole records, holds himself out as a shining example of a good parolee.

"If I wanted to," he says, "I could just quit my job and then nobody'd get ­nothing."

But that's exactly what Rockowitz says it feels like anyway.

"We got a check for 50-something in 2007 and then another 50-something this year," says Rockowitz. "You can't even buy groceries for the week with that. It's absurd."

Former Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy once said, "Obviously crime pays, or there'd be no crime."

When it comes to restitution, Rains agrees.

"It's really kind of sad to say, but crime can pay," he says. "You commit the crime, you get the money from the crime, but you never have to pay it back. And there's really no hammer over you."

Woodson says he's doing the best he can with what he's got and tries not to agonize over it too much.

"If I worried about all the money I owe," he says, "if I were to try to pay all that back, then I would either have a nervous breakdown or shoot myself. I really don't know whether I'm going to keep paying when I get off, but the way I feel now is that I'll have to pay the rest of my life."

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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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