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Restitution: Making Payment Plans Work

Setting good payment plans.

The first step to making payment plans work is to gather solid information about the defendant's finances. Jurisdictions are using a variety of disclosure forms to gather information from the defendant.


The Texas Office of the Court Administrator states that if two key pieces of information from the defendant are verified--the defendant's home/contact phone and employment/source of income--the remaining information provided by the defendant is likely to be correct. 

  • Colorado uses both a short form and long form for financial disclosure, depending on the amount of restitution ordered. The long form is typically used for high-dollar cases, especially for use with white collar crime cases. Importantly, both forms require the defendant to sign consenting to an investigation of the information provided, including through credit-reporting agencies.

  • Alaska uses the same form to determine whether a person qualifies for appointment of counsel and to help set a restitution payment plan.


Along with information voluntarily provided by the defendant, other sources reveal the defendant's assets. These include automobile leasing contracts, apartment leases, and credit card applications, where the defendant has an incentive to fully disclose his or her assets and earnings.

Facilitating Payment.

Restitution and other payment obligations can be confusing. Courts and probation departments should make every effort to ensure that defendants understand their obligation to pay, the methods for payment, and the consequences of default.

Even after defendants leave the court house, they may not clearly understand their obligations or how to make required payments. Information should be given to offenders and available online.

  • The Adult Probation & Parole Services Collections Enforcement Unit of the Court of Common Pleas in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, posts a clearly written Frequently Asked Questions for offenders regarding payment obligations. 

  • In California, the Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board developed an easy-to-read brochure for adult and juvenile offenders entitled "Your Restitution Responsibilities." They also publish a brochure for adult offenders in Spanish.


Many agencies add a small transaction fee for processing online payments, to offset costs.

Increasingly, state and local agencies are giving defendants the option to pay court debt online. In Pennsylvania, the Unified Court System has created an online payment portal and user guide for use by courts across the state. 

Motivating defendants.

Motivating defendants can be key to making payment plans work. Motivations may include the use of incentives, such as travel privileges or permits, access to special education or work programs, or a reduced number of in-person supervision visits for a defendant who is current with restitution payments.

Maricopa County Adult Probation Department has developed a list of "Tips and Techniques for Encouraging Payment of Court-Ordered Financial Obligations."

The National Institute on Corrections has published a guide, " Motivating Offenders to Change," that focuses on the evidence-based practice of motivational interviewing. This detailed guide includes motivation regarding conditions of supervision such as payment obligations.

A restorative justice approach offers an alternative to court-ordered restitution which may satisfy the victim and more effectively motivate the offender. Research has shown that restitution agreements in victim offender mediation processes result in 80-90% completion rates (Umbreit,2004). Dodge County, Wisconsin has found that 95% of Victim/Offender Conferences result in a signed restitution agreement, and that offenders are more likely to pay restitution if they have met with the victim. Dodge County’s Conferencing process can be found here.

Tracking performance.

The value of tracking a defendant's payments, and sending regular billing statements, cannot be overstated. Without a solid system, it is too easy for a defendant to fall into a pattern of noncompliance.

Furthermore, most people require-and expect-regular bills or invoices when managing their own money. Defendants who are under a payment plan should receive monthly statements or bills.

Fortunately, there are a number of software systems available for courts and probation departments to provide automatic tracking of payments, generate regular payment reminders and delinquent notices, and perform other functions to improve the recordkeeping and monitoring of defendant payments.

The Texas Office of Court Administration's Collection Improvement Program has written a guide for evaluating collections software. They also produced a checklist for easy comparison.

Collecting from inmates.

When defendants are ordered to pay restitution and are also sent to prison, collection need not wait until they are released. Many states perform inmate " account sweeps," deducting a portion of the money in an inmate's account for payment of restitution and other costs. In most cases, these sweeps are performed monthly or periodically; in a few, they occur when an inmate is released. Account sweeps can be an important source of collection. For example, York County, Pennsylvania, collects about $200K per year in court costs and restitution from prisoner account sweeps.

The Texas Office of Court Administration has developed a detailed description of the process for inmate account sweeps.

Most states by law require that a portion of the wages earned through prison work programs or work release be deducted for restitution.

Although many states have authorized agencies to deduct restitution payments from prisoner accounts, both Pennsylvania and California have found that many counties do not use this authority. In 2013, Pennsylvania identified this underutilization as a problem in their Task Force Report and introduced a bill to mandate such deductions.

States also commonly provide that if an inmate successfully sues the state, the resulting monetary damages must first be paid to satisfy any outstanding restitution orders.

1Umbreit, Mark S, Robert B. Coates, and Betty Vos. "Victim-offender mediation: Three Decades of practice and research." Conflict Resolution Quarterly 22:1-2 (2004): 279-303. Wiley Online Library. Web. 8 Aug. 2014.

This toolkit was produced by the National Center for Victims of Crime under cooperative agreement 2009-SZ-B9-K006, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this document are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Copyright © 2011 National Center for Victims of Crime. All rights reserved.