Federal Criminal Restitution:

Most Debt Is Outstanding and Oversight of Collections Could Be Improved

GAO-18-203: Published: Feb 2, 2018. Publicly Released: Feb 2, 2018.

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    INFOGRAPHIC: Compensating the Victims of Federal Crimes

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What GAO Found

Officials from selected U.S. Attorney's Offices (USAO) stated that they document requests for restitution in case files and employ other internal controls, such as the use of templates and forms, throughout the prosecution process to ensure that prosecutors request restitution as appropriate. GAO's analysis of U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) data—an agency within the judiciary—showed that information on restitution orders was available for 95 percent of all offenders sentenced from fiscal years 2014 through 2016. Specifically, 214,578 federal offenders were sentenced during this time period and restitution was ordered for 33,158, or 15 percent, of those offenders. Collectively, courts ordered these offenders to pay $33.9 billion in restitution. Most federal offenders sentenced during these years were sentenced for immigration or drug-related offenses. In interviews, USAO officials stated that these offenses do not typically have victims requiring restitution. GAO found that data on reasons why restitution was not ordered were incomplete for 5 percent of all offenders sentenced from fiscal years 2014 through 2016. Determining why data on restitution orders are incomplete may inform the judiciary of the cause of the incomplete data and any efforts needed to improve USSC data.

GAO's analysis of Department of Justice (DOJ) data showed that USAOs collected $2.95 billion in restitution debt in fiscal years 2014 through 2016, see figure below. However, at the end of fiscal year 2016, $110 billion in previously ordered restitution remained outstanding, and USAOs identified $100 billion of that outstanding debt as uncollectible due to offenders' inability to pay.

Collected and Outstanding Criminal Restitution as of the End of Fiscal Years 2014 through 2016

HL_5 - 101413

DOJ identified improving debt collection—including restitution—as a major management initiative in its 2014-2018 Strategic Plan. While DOJ is developing analytical tools to monitor the collection of restitution, it has not established performance measures or goals. Performance measures and goals would allow DOJ to gauge USAOs' success in collecting restitution and, by extension, the department's success in achieving a major management initiative.

Why GAO Did This Study

One of the goals of federal criminal restitution is to restore victims of federal crimes to the position they occupied before the crime was committed by providing compensation. Various entities within the federal government are involved in the process of requesting, ordering, and collecting restitution for crime victims, including DOJ and the judiciary.

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2016 includes a provision for GAO to review the federal criminal restitution process for fiscal years 2014 through 2016. This report addresses, among other things: (1) the extent to which information is available on restitution requested by DOJ and ordered by courts; (2) the amount of restitution debt DOJ collected and the amount that remains outstanding; and, (3) the extent to which DOJ has conducted oversight on the collection of restitution. GAO analyzed laws, policies and procedures as well as USSC data on restitution orders and DOJ data on restitution collected from fiscal years 2014 through 2016. GAO also selected a non-generalizable sample of six federal judicial districts based on restitution collections and spoke with USAO officials and federal probation officers.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations. GAO is making one to the judiciary to determine why data on restitution orders are incomplete. GAO is making two recommendations to DOJ, including one to implement performance measures and goals for the collection of restitution. The judiciary and DOJ concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administrative Office of United States Courts reported in September 2018 that the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and USSC sent a joint letter to all district judges and relevant staff, sharing the GAO report in full and explaining GAO's analysis and findings about USSC data. According to this letter, the Criminal Law Committee and the USSC were working together to update guidance and training materials on the Statement of Reasons form. In October 2019, USSC reported that it had conducted a preliminary analysis of fiscal year 2019 data, both to assess whether these communications and training efforts have improved reporting and to see if they could learn more about any issues or problems with the data. USSC reported that it found a significant reduction in the number of instances in judges did not include information on restitution. According to USSC, the analysis indicates that the percentage of such instances has fallen to approximately to two percent of the total (slightly more than 70,000) cases for which a Statement of Reasons form was submitted in fiscal year--in contrast to the nearly five percent GAO reported. USSC reported that it also analyzed the type of offenses involved in these instances. According to the USSC, it appeared that the majority of the instances involved offenses for which an order of restitution would very likely not have been appropriate. USSC reported that approximately 48 percent of the instances involved immigration offenses and 21 percent involved drug trafficking, both offenses for which no restitution was applicable. These actions could help the judiciary ensure reasons for not ordering restitution are provided consistently in all cases and potentially improve data provided to USSC and this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: Judiciary officials, including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, USSC, and the Judicial Conference, should determine why USSC data on the reasons restitution was not ordered are incomplete. Additionally, if warranted based on this information, judiciary officials should take action to ensure USSC data records include all required information for orders of restitution. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: United States Sentencing Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administrative Office of United States Courts reported in September 2018 that the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and USSC sent a joint letter to all district judges and relevant staff, sharing the GAO report in full and explaining GAO's analysis and findings about USSC data. According to this letter, the Criminal Law Committee and the USSC were working together to update guidance and training materials on the Statement of Reasons form. In October 2019, USSC reported that it had conducted a preliminary analysis of fiscal year 2019 data, both to assess whether these communications and training efforts have improved reporting and to see if they could learn more about any issues or problems with the data. USSC reported that it found a significant reduction in the number of instances in judges did not include information on restitution. According to USSC, the analysis indicates that the percentage of such instances has fallen to approximately to two percent of the total (slightly more than 70,000) cases for which a Statement of Reasons form was submitted in fiscal year--in contrast to the nearly five percent GAO reported. USSC reported that it also analyzed the type of offenses involved in these instances. According to the USSC, it appeared that the majority of the instances involved offenses for which an order of restitution would very likely not have been appropriate. USSC reported that approximately 48 percent of the instances involved immigration offenses and 21 percent involved drug trafficking, both offenses for which no restitution was applicable. These actions could help the judiciary ensure reasons for not ordering restitution are provided consistently in all cases and potentially improve data provided to USSC and this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: Judiciary officials, including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, USSC, and the Judicial Conference, should determine why USSC data on the reasons restitution was not ordered are incomplete. Additionally, if warranted based on this information, judiciary officials should take action to ensure USSC data records include all required information for orders of restitution. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Judicial Conference of the United States

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Administrative Office of United States Courts reported in September 2018 that the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and USSC sent a joint letter to all district judges and relevant staff, sharing the GAO report in full and explaining GAO's analysis and findings about USSC data. According to this letter, the Criminal Law Committee and the USSC were working together to update guidance and training materials on the Statement of Reasons form. In October 2019, USSC reported that it had conducted a preliminary analysis of fiscal year 2019 data, both to assess whether these communications and training efforts have improved reporting and to see if they could learn more about any issues or problems with the data. USSC reported that it found a significant reduction in the number of instances in judges did not include information on restitution. According to USSC, the analysis indicates that the percentage of such instances has fallen to approximately to two percent of the total (slightly more than 70,000) cases for which a Statement of Reasons form was submitted in fiscal year--in contrast to the nearly five percent GAO reported. USSC reported that it also analyzed the type of offenses involved in these instances. According to the USSC, it appeared that the majority of the instances involved offenses for which an order of restitution would very likely not have been appropriate. USSC reported that approximately 48 percent of the instances involved immigration offenses and 21 percent involved drug trafficking, both offenses for which no restitution was applicable. These actions could help the judiciary ensure reasons for not ordering restitution are provided consistently in all cases and potentially improve data provided to USSC and this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: Judiciary officials, including the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, USSC, and the Judicial Conference, should determine why USSC data on the reasons restitution was not ordered are incomplete. Additionally, if warranted based on this information, judiciary officials should take action to ensure USSC data records include all required information for orders of restitution. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2019, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that Executive Office for United States Attorneys developed a core set of performance measures for evaluating collection activities. Further, DOJ officials reported that DOJ was in the process of developing an analytical tool to allow DOJ and U.S. Attorneys Offices' (USAOs) to assess USAO restitution collection efforts and results based on relevant factors. In November 2019, DOJ officials reported that DOJ had begun piloting the analytical tool and expected that it would be fully implemented by July 2020. However, in July 2020, DOJ officials reported that the technical challenges they encountered, as well as the impacts to government operations as a result of the 2019 COVID pandemic, have directly impacted their operations and resulted in delays. While DOJ's initial completion time frame was scheduled for October 2020, the challenges they have encountered have resulted in the timeline for implementation now expected to take place during the first quarter of FY 2021. We will continue to monitor DOJ's progress and time frames for implementation.

    Recommendation: To improve oversight of the collection of restitution, the Attorney General should develop and implement performance measures and goals for each USAO related to the collection of restitution, and measure progress towards meeting those goals. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2019, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) and Asset Forfeiture staff at DOJ studied and evaluated how to best track the reasons forfeiture funds were or were not used for victims. EOUSA and the Asset Forfeiture staff took steps to enhance the Asset Forfeiture tracking system, Consolidated Asset Tracking System (CATS), to allow DOJ to track more information about victims' cases. In February 2019, DOJ modified CATS to require all DOJ Asset Forfeiture participating agencies to verify whether victims were involved in the criminal conduct underlying the forfeiture. Additionally, in CATS entries where users indicate that victims exist, users are now required to provide a reason where forfeited assets are not used for remission or restoration. DOJ's modification of CATS to collect data on reasons why forfeited assets were not used for victims should position DOJ to fully implement our recommendation by taking action to increase the use of forfeited assets to compensate eligible victims as warranted. Furthermore, in July 2020, DOJ made the determination that no further adjustments to its current practices are warranted to increase the use of forfeited assets to compensate eligible victims. DOJ believes their actions taken, such as the modifications to the CATS data system and the development of user guides and training materials to ensure reliable data help, assure that eligible victims receive compensation through forfeited assets to the maximum extent practicable. These actions will help DOJ ensure reasons for not ordering federal criminal restitution are provided consistently. This recommendation is therefore closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve oversight of the collection of restitution, the Attorney General should, in cases where forfeited assets were not used to compensate victims, gather information on reasons why forfeited assets were not used for victims. If warranted based on this information, take action to increase the use of forfeited assets to compensate eligible victims. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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