When a defendant is convicted of a crime in federal court he or she may be ordered to pay restitution to the victims or fines and special assessments. But collecting that money is challenging. The Financial Litigation Unit (“FLU”) of the Department of Justice has recently received access to an application called the Offender Payment Enhanced Report Access, or OPErA, which makes it easier for them to monitor the collection of unpaid criminal debts. A lot of these debts can never be paid, but they try and get as far as they can.
Right now, criminal offenders under the supervision of federal probation officers owe more than $17 billion — yes billion — in criminal monetary penalties. Collecting debts is difficult given that most have little money and limited job prospects. The other problem in the past with respect to collecting has been the government’s fragmented debt collection process. But in 2009, OPERA was launched allowing probation officers to monitor payments and payment histories, and help them address any noncompliance issues. In 201, FLU was given access to OPERA and now FLU personnel use OPERA for at least 500 inquiries on offenders each day.
Even with a more aggressive and unified debt collection system in place, most debts are not collectible. Many offenders amass child support arrears, back taxes and interest. Despite the challenges, given the efforts of FLU and OPERA, collection rates have improved from 5% to 15%.
If you are a victim and the offender in your case was ordered to pay you restitution, it is worth asking how that process works and what you can do, if anything, to help.