Audit: Oregon crime victims lack restitution

PORTLAND — An audit by the Oregon Secretary of State shows many crime victims are not getting the restitution they are allowed, a problem that prosecutors blame partly on tight budgets.

The audit reviewed district attorney records in four sample counties for 210 cases involving crimes allowing victim restitution, such as theft, burglary and assault.

In about half the cases reviewed in the audit, restitution was not provided because the victim didn't suffer an economic loss or was compensated by other means.

But in about a third of the remaining cases, the victims did not provide all the documentation needed to claim restitution. In the other two-thirds, the audit said district attorneys did not take the necessary steps to get the restitution.

Prosecutors, however, said they lack the resources to fully investigate economic losses for all victims — and many are hard to find.

"Frankly, we just don't hear back from some of the victims," said John Sewell, the Hood River County district attorney and the new president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

He also blamed the economy and the lack of a statewide data management system that district attorneys could share for tracking restitution — a project that has been rejected by the Legislature for lack of funding.

"In these economic times, it's somewhat understandable," Sewell said. "But it's frustrating."

Coos County District Attorney R. Paul Frasier, whose county was among those audited, said the report recommended that victims be contacted by phone or in person if they do not respond to letters. But he said that requires time and resources many prosecutors do not have in their budgets.

"How much time we should spend going after victims, saying 'What do you want us to do?'" Frasier said.

He noted that Coos County obtained court-ordered restitution for more than $600,000 in 2008 with a staff of only two people.

Restitution was not necessary in 111 cases because there was no loss or there was other compensation, such as court-ordered fines or insurance company payments. One case involved a stolen bicycle valued at $1,500 that was returned undamaged to its owner, while several assault cases involving bodily injury did not result in any medical or other expenses.

For 99 cases, it was the victim or the prosecutors who did not follow through, for various reasons. In one case, a victim who had been beaten repeatedly wanted to reunite with a defendant and did not want him to pay her medical bills.

The 2003 Legislature required district attorneys to investigate and present evidence of economic losses to victims, and judges to order restitution when losses are substantiated.

"The DAs have always been strong advocates for victim's rights," Sewell said.

But as Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk said in a letter responding to the audit, which included his county, devoting existing resources to tracking down restitution likely would mean less prosecution of some low-level crimes.

"While we try hard to pursue restitution, we simply do not have the staff," Schrunk wrote.

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