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Study advocates for improved restitution, compensation process for crime victims

ASU researchers recommend 5 systemwide changes to improve process

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Photo courtesy Adobe Stock

December 04, 2023

Being the victim of a crime is a difficult experience that comes with physical, mental, emotional and financial consequences ranging from moderately inconvenient to traumatic. Frequently, as part of dealing with the aftermath, victims seek restitutionA process in which the courts order a person convicted of a crime to pay for financial losses directly caused by the crime. and compensation from a state-run program for victims.

Although there is a process in place to facilitate this resolution, it is not perfect. In fact, victims often find themselves facing challenging roadblocks along the way.

In a recent report led by Professor Leslie Paik of the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, researchers delved into the experiences of 94 crime victims in Arizona to shed light on how restitution and compensation are handled, and find ways to improve processes. The insights gathered from victims’ personal stories and experiences unveiled several key points of frustration within the system.

A chance to enhance processes

Though there were some positive aspects to share, like compassionate caseworkers and successful outcomes, the researchers heard several difficulties that illuminated opportunities for improvement. The most common pain points centered on unclear communication, a lack of voice in the court process, complex bureaucratic procedures and inadequate or delayed funds.

Some victims, for example, had trouble reaching the right people to help them. They spent countless hours calling various departments but were transferred elsewhere or had their calls go unreturned.

Others shared how the outcome itself wasn’t always ideal. A few recounted the frustrations of finally receiving the payment they needed, but not receiving enough money to cover necessary costs. Ultimately, they were too exhausted from navigating the court process to push for the amount they felt entitled to.

Victims also talked about the tedious and confusing paperwork, with one person being asked to fill out the same form multiple times on separate occasions — which delayed progress with the case.

Drawing from these insights and many others, the researchers compiled responses and came up with five recommendations specifically aimed at addressing the most challenging aspects of this system:

  1. Streamline communication between victims and the legal system to ensure that victims are well-informed about the progress of their cases and the status of their restitution.
  2. Offer versatile restitution options, including both financial and nonfinancial means of restitution and compensation. That way, victims get the specific help they need.
  3. Reevaluate the timing for outreach, deadlines and the disbursement of funds to expedite the process and alleviate victims' financial burdens faster.
  4. Simplify the eligibility and application process to reduce bureaucratic barriers and the resulting confusion.
  5. Invest in a centralized electronic notification/tracking system so victims can access their case details directly and transparently. This idea stemmed from the interviews with the victims. Many agreed it would help simplify the process and reduce unnecessary phone calls.

Not only does this approach address the pain points victims described, but it’s also more comprehensive and does not solely rely on the ability of the person convicted of the crime to pay restitution — a difficult feat for those who are jobless, too young to work or facing other case-related financial obligations. It is instead meant to better recognize and address the nuances of each unique situation in a scalable way.

"We offer these recommendations, knowing they are ambitious in scope but also are grounded in the individual victims' experiences and desires,” the researchers say.

“It is our hope that they will inspire and inform jurisdictions’ possible steps forward to make the legal system more responsive to the victims, while also not exacerbating the excessive legal debt imposed on people charged with the crimes who cannot afford to pay it back. In doing so, there is greater opportunity not just for the individuals charged with the crime to take accountability, but also for the legal system to take accountability … in administering fair and equitable justice.”

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