Crime Doesnt Pay(back): A Houston Press Special Report on Court-Ordered Restitutions in Texas
$120. That's what crack dealer Gregory "Little Greg" Stewart was trying to collect as he repeatedly beat customer Rick Galloway in the head seven years ago on a Houston street corner.
Injured, Galloway scrambled into a friend's nearby home to try to get away, but Stewart crept inside the house and delivered a final sucker punch to the back of Galloway's skull, bursting a blood vessel inside his brain. Galloway stumbled back outside, where he collapsed and started to convulse.
Four days later, Galloway's sister, Regina Cleggs, pulled the plug on her brother, who lay brain-dead at Memorial Hermann Hospital. Houston police charged Stewart with murder.
During the following year, Stewart's attorney carved out a sweet deal with Harris County prosecutors. Stewart, who two years earlier had been sentenced to 12 months in county jail for possession of cocaine, agreed to plead guilty if the murder charge was dropped to aggravated assault. And so it was. In April 2002, a judge sentenced Stewart to five years in prison and ordered him to pay Cleggs $7,000 in restitution when and if Stewart made parole.
For years, Cleggs waited patiently at her home outside Cleveland, Ohio. It wasn't a lot of money, she knew, but it would certainly help.
Cleggs had adopted her brother's eldest son, Davonte Parker, who was nine when Galloway died, and she paid for several years of daily grief therapy for him. A neck injury and several spinal surgeries around that same time meant Cleggs could no longer earn a living as a nurse, but she and her husband, who worked for the local power company, still managed to help out with her brother's two other sons — Joshua McKinnley and DiYon Flantroy — who each lived with their respective mothers.
On top of that, Cleggs paid to drive to Houston when Galloway lay on life support and covered the costly funeral and medical bills.
Galloway did not leave much in the way of money. A few months before dying, he had moved from Ohio to Houston to receive pricey kidney dialysis treatment at Memorial Hermann in an attempt to prolong his life. Galloway was in end-stage renal failure, a result, says Cleggs, of years of taking heavy doses of antibiotics that attacked his liver following an accident.
Stewart was paroled in May 2005, four years into his prison sentence. According to the court order, that meant he had 12 months to pay Cleggs the $7,000 he owed her. Not a lot of time, thought Cleggs, but not an impossible amount of money, either.
Cleggs assumed the money would begin trickling in. "It took several months to get the first check and then there was like a five-month gap before the second one. I got $85 the first time and $60 the second time." She kept the receipts.
As it turned out, that second check was the final transaction between Cleggs and Stewart.
Once Stewart's parole ended in 2006, he was successfully discharged; the state had washed its hands and officials could do nothing to make him pay the remaining restitution. As far as Texas was concerned, Stewart had met his obligations.
A four-month Houston Press investigation reveals that more than 90 percent of the 5,133 parolees across Texas who have been successfully discharged in the last five years still owe their victims court-ordered restitution.
"I'm really fed up with seeing major stories in the newspapers where defendants are court-ordered to pay restitution," says Andy Kahan, the City of Houston's crime victims advocate. "I knew that sounded good on the news, but the chances of them paying their restitution was slim to none. I had a better chance of growing my hair back than victims had of getting what was owed to them."
The Houston Press originally intended to investigate restitution payments by probationers and parolees. Probation, run by the county, is given instead of jail or prison; parole, run by the state, is for offenders who are released from prison before their sentence is over. This soon, however, proved to be problematic.
The Press filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act asking for a list of probationers in Harris County over the past five years who had been discharged even though they still owed restitution, including names, how much they paid and owe. The county's Community Supervision & Corrections Department denied the request, saying state district court judges have decided not to release information located in probationers' files, which county attorneys say is allowed under state law.
Six months earlier, however, Kahan requested nearly identical information from the same department and received a letter stating that the data was in fact available, but would cost $1,142. Kahan says he declined "their kind offer."
The state parole division, which falls under the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, was somewhat more accommodating when Kahan asked it for information. Free of charge, he received a list of parolees supervised in Harris County, their discharge dates, what they owed and how much they'd paid.
The data showed that over the last two years, more than $928,400 in restitution was never paid and that the parole division only collected $30,262 — or just 3.1 percent of the money owed by offenders who were successfully discharged. Some examples:
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.
"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."
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?"
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. However...my 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."
But of course, barring any additional court intervention, he will not.
"The only comment I can make about parole," says Rains, "is that once a person is off parole, you'll never get any money."
In early August, Rockowitz told the Press that she knows Woodson will be discharged from parole this spring but is absolutely certain that, despite the pittance she's received so far, Woodson will have to make her whole before being discharged. After all, it is a court order.
After talking to the Press again a week later, however, Rockowitz became concerned the money would never come and called TDCJ. Rockowitz says she spoke to a woman cashier in Huntsville.
Rockowitz was stunned to hear not only that Woodson most likely won't pay her in time but that she should not expect any money after Woodson is discharged.
"The reality of being totally screwed is setting in," she said after getting off the phone with the cashier. "My stomach is in knots. Even if we had gotten back $25,000, that's something. But $100? It's horrible, just horrible. There's got to be something that can be done to make criminals accountable, because right now we're the ones with the life sentence."
Collecting restitution is a problem across the country, and some states seem to take it more seriously than others.
According to The National Center for Victims of Crime, California garnishes wages; Iowa takes money from trust funds; Colorado seizes tax refunds; Arizona, Missouri and Minnesota have at times hired collection agencies; Kansas lets victims access offenders' personal financial information; and Kentucky has gone so far as to say that offenders who do not pay off their restitution will remain on parole, indefinitely.
At the moment, none of these methods are in place in Texas.
"Victims have little or no recourse to them because the system as we have it is not working for them," says Kahan. "But hopefully, looking at cases and looking at the research and the numbers can be a catalyst for change. Casting of blame is fine, but I'd much rather find a solution."
Republican State Representative Jerry Madden of Plano is trying to do just that. Last year, he proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to garnish wages to pay restitution, as it does for child support payments. The measure did not get to a final vote, but Madden is optimistic and plans on submitting it again during the next legislative session.
Two other measures were filed last year that might help the problem, but they also did not make it to a final vote in the Legislature. The first was a bill aimed at making it easier for convicts to obtain professional licenses, enabling them to get higher-paying jobs and thus pay victims faster. The second was a bill calling for added transparency, requiring the parole division to make quarterly reports to TDCJ on restitution payments by parolees and then for TDCJ to publish the information in an annual report.
"Logistically, the constitutional amendment and other bills are relatively easy," says public policy expert Marc Levin. "I won't say, however, that those will solve all or even most of the problems."
The parole division did request that parolees fork over their tax refunds this year, but even that doesn't sound like a requirement or a top priority.
"That is something we've looked at as far as following up on," Jenkins says. "We did notify the offenders that our expectation was that if they were delinquent on fees...then we expected [their tax rebate] to go toward the fees."
Ideas such as garnishing wages, extending parole indefinitely, hiring private collection agencies, putting parolees in jail over the weekend for nonpayment — called "shock-jail" — or designating a collection task force within the parole division or the Attorney General's office have both advocates and detractors.
"Wages should be garnished," says Kahan, "and we need a specialized unit like we have for sex offenders and child support. We need to go after parolees who owe restitution. I would go into a person's home and see what property they have. You have a computer, a TV, a cell phone, hey, I'll take it and put it on eBay. But unfortunately, we don't think like that."
As it is now, says John, the parole officer, it's easy for offenders to cheat and avoid paying restitution. Officers verify an offender's employment by looking at his paycheck stubs, he says. If a parolee says he gets paid in cash or that he just doesn't have a job, there's almost nothing an officer can do.
"If you tell the officer that you're unemployed," he says, "how's the officer going to verify it unless he goes by the house and sees the individual there every day? And of course we can't do that because all our visits are scheduled. We don't do random visits, so you can hide the TV and you can hide the cash."
Madden says passing legislation to extend parole until the offender pays all his restitution is a long shot.
Jenkins agrees that hiring private collection agencies may be a good idea, but it's not one the parole division has thoroughly investigated. As for shock-jail, he says, "I think it's a good idea once we've exhausted all other options."
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.
"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."
Or, as Levin puts it, "It all goes back to, you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip. However, I think we can make a marginal difference by holding offenders more accountable and looking at ways so that offenders are in a position to make a living and make the victim whole. "
Stewart thinks TDCJ should make it easier for inmates to earn money while in prison.
"They should let us work and start paying as soon as we can," says Stewart. "If I'd have been able to pay during those four years I did, I think I would've been able to even complete my restitution."
The prison system does have an inmate work program, but Stewart says he did not qualify because of the type of crime he was convicted of. Prison spokeswoman Michelle Lyons says that's not true. The Prison Industry Enhancement program, in which private companies hire and pay prisoners, is open to all inmates, she says. It's up to the companies to decide who they choose to hire.
The profits prisoners earn largely go toward saving taxpayer money by paying for room and board, but a small portion is also used to pay for dependent support, victims programs, offender savings, supervision costs and restitution. Over the past 14 years, according to TDCJ, inmates have paid more than $14 million toward room and board — about 49 percent of the total amount inmates contributed — whereas slightly less than $138,000 — less than half a percent of the total amount inmates contributed — has gone toward paying restitution. Lyons says the reason for the small overall percentage is that, although offenders in the work program who owe restitution are required to hand over 10 percent of their wages toward paying restitution, not all of the inmates working owe restitution.
It's been two years since the parole division successfully discharged Stewart. He knows he owes Cleggs money, though the amount is in dispute. Stewart claims he paid more than $3,000 in restitution. Cleggs says she received $145. And TDCJ, according to information provided through an open records request, says that Stewart paid $420. Lyons says that TDCJ stands behind its number and there is no explanation for the discrepancy.
Regardless of the amount, like many offenders, Stewart doesn't think he should have to pay Cleggs any remaining restitution.
"I did four years [in prison]," he says, "which was basically my whole sentence, so I've paid my debt to society. I got out, successfully completed my parole, so my debt is paid."
Cleggs was opening her mail one afternoon a couple of years ago when she noticed a letter sent from TDCJ. Her heart raced as she tore it open, hoping for good news, perhaps even a check, and then sank when she pulled out the contents. It was a form letter simply stating that Stewart had been issued a discharge certificate and was no longer under the parole department's jurisdiction. In only a couple of sentences, the letter spelled out how much Stewart should have paid, how much he actually paid and the remaining balance. The letter ended, almost sarcastically, says Cleggs, by thanking her for her cooperation.
"I got so angry about this letter," says Cleggs, "that I got on the phone and called them right up."
The form letters are inexcusable, says Kahan.
"What a kick in the pants," he says. "There has to be a better way of telling a victim that they've been screwed so royally by our system other than sending a form letter. I can't imagine getting one of those, I'd be so irate."
Like Rockowitz, Cleggs spoke to a cashier.
"They told me they just didn't have the manpower to handle all the paperwork and I'd be wasting my time to fight it," says Cleggs. "They said that there was nothing I could do, there was nothing they were going to do, so I should just chalk it up and move on with my life."
Cleggs says she cannot afford an attorney to file a lien and feels discouraged from even pursuing the option after the cashier told her she'd be wasting her time.
"Actually, what I want to do is to sue the state of Texas for not enforcing their own damn law," she says. "I want to sue not only for the money but also the mental anguish this has put me through. I'm at the point where even when something about Texas comes on the news, I turn it right off because the state of Texas disgusts me so much. It's really so unfair and so unjust what happened to me and what continues to happen to victims in Texas. Like I've said, the whole damned thing is treated like a terrible joke. I mean, $145? That's way less than five percent."
And just $25 more than what her brother was killed over.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.