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.

The tools currently available to parole officers and the parole board to compel payment are considered by many as either too weak to be effective or terribly ­underused.

Offenders who don't pay face consequences such as having to report more frequently to their parole officer, take financial planning classes, submit to a curfew or electronic monitoring and, in some cases, spend time at a kind of halfway house under lockdown at which offenders are only allowed out to go to work to earn money toward paying restitution.

However, the more aggressive methods are seldom used.

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.

"Making sure we're addressing the issue with the offender is probably the best thing we can do," says Jenkins. "Sometimes that sounds a little bit soft, collecting the money they can pay...[but] from our perspective we're trying to enforce the condition and make sure that it's paid back."

John says the problem is a combination of complacent parole officers and not enough backing from the parole board, which has final say over any sanctions against an offender.

"Some officers are not being strict enough...[and] a lot of them are just letting offenders get by without paying," he says. "I mean, you can tell them to pay, but it always comes out sounding like, 'You can pay if you want to.' We don't have any teeth. And if you try to take them to the parole board and say, 'I want to impose this or that because an individual hasn't paid,' they'll look at you like you're crazy. They tell you to just send the offender to financial management, that silly class that [offenders] don't pay any attention during and is just a waste of my time and their time."

The strongest tool officers have is the threat of revoking an offender's parole and sending him back to prison.

"When I was on parole," says Gregory Stewart, "that was the motivator. I was told I could be violated if I didn't pay."

But as far as the Press can determine, it is a hammer that is never used. Rissie Owens, a member of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which decides whether to revoke a parolee, says it's practically unheard of.

"I would be real surprised," she says, "to see someone revoked for failure to pay restitution. Now, if there are other violations as well and this happens to be one of them, it's a possibility."

Offenders such as Woodson and Stewart say this is news to them. And Kahan worries that revealing the reality that revocations are never employed may mean that parolees who do pay, may stop.

"Really, the only thing that they have dangling over offenders," says Kahan, "is the delusion and false belief that if they don't pay there's a good chance that they'll go back to prison."

Victims, however, are not completely helpless. They can file for a lien against an offender, which is a legal claim on the offender's property. The problem with liens, though, is that many times lawyers and the courts are needed to impose them.

Filing a civil lawsuit to enforce the lien can allow victims to garnish bank accounts and take ownership of stocks and property, says Houston collections attorney Jennifer Black. Victims can secure a lien at any time, even after the offender is off parole. It lasts ten years and can be renewed. Many collections lawyers will take cases on contingency.

Levin is fighting to help victims seeking enforcement of a lien. Currently, all Texas residents, including offenders, can exempt up to $30,000 in personal property, or $60,000 if married, from a civil judgment. He wants to see the exemptions lowered, if not erased, arguing that liens involving restitution are different because they stem from criminal acts.

While Regina Cleggs struggles to care for her dead brother's son in Ohio and fumes over the fact that she never received all of her court-ordered restitution, Gregory Stewart spends his days once again locked up inside a Texas prison. He recently began a six-year sentence after police caught him in illegal possession of more than 400 grams of codeine pills.

From behind the thick glass partition separating inmates from visitors at the Garza West unit in Beeville, Stewart says he tried his best to pay Cleggs her restitution. But it wasn't easy.

For starters, Stewart says he couldn't get a job when he was released from prison. He completed his GED as an inmate and says he never had a profession, other than selling drugs. For two and a half months he looked for work, but to no avail. Finally his sister, a manager at a Taco Bell, hired him for $7 an hour.

This is the problem for which no one seems to have a solution: how to make someone pay money that they don't have.

"You're talking about people who probably, once they get out of prison, are going to have a tough time finding jobs and then they're probably not going to be high-paying jobs," says Judge Rains. "And if you owe $30,000, okay, you pay $5 dollars every time...that's never going to pay it off and at some time your parole ends and your obligation ends. I wish there were a way to make that better, but I don't know that it ever will be."

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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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