Millions meant for California crime victims goes unpaid

Victim restitution is court ordered -- to be paid by offenders to compensate victims. If inmates owe restitution to their victims, the state collects half what they earn in prison jobs and half of what family or friends contribute to their prison accounts. Still, millions of dollars are sitting in accounts, not being paid out by the state because it says it never received crucial information from the counties.

Daniel Garcia's home was burglarized in 2008. The thief took items, such as his iPod, a guitar and his handgun.

A judge ordered restitution for the thief to pay for what he stole. Garcia never thought he'd see any money.

"It's a violation and it's very personal when you walk home and your door's wide open and you see everything missing, gone," Garcia tells the ABC 7 News I-Team.

Garcia got some closure a few weeks ago. The ABC7 News I-Team listened in on the phone call from the California State Department of Corrections.

Michael Rogowski: "And the amount that the judge awarded you was $10,253. We have collected that in full. Would you like it?"
Daniel Garcia: "Oh my gosh. Yes I would, absolutely. That'd be terrific."
Michael Rogowski: "Fantastic."

But, Garcia is lucky. The state admits up to half the time, victims of crime don't get their money -- money the state has actually collected from inmates -- because of a glitch in the system. County courts and district attorneys are failing to forward contact information for the victims to the state office that collects restitution. In some cases victims move and don't provide forwarding information.

"I do nothing but research all day looking for unknown victims," Michael Rogowski says.

Rogowski is with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's unknown victims unit. The team tracks down crime victims who are owed money, but can't be found.

"The biggest challenge is finding the victims because on the court documents, it may come in as 'pay $2,000 to the victim.' Well, who's the victim? So you're flipping through these court documents, you can't find anything," Rogowski said.

According to its website, the CDRC takes in about $400,000 per month, and the unclaimed money is adding up.

In Santa Clara County, more than $1 million is owed victims who the state says it can't find.

"I have to say that this is very distressing information." California Superior Court of Santa Clara Judge Rise Jones Pichon said.

Pichon hadn't heard about the problem until the I-Team told her about it.

"If a court makes an order for restitution and the restitution has been collected, I consider it a failure to comply with a court order," Pichon said.

Vincent Reyna has overseen unclaimed restitution for Santa Clara County for years. He says he just learned about the county's million-dollar backlog three months ago, when the state finally called.

"Like anyone else I was concerned but I was more concerned about how we were going to fix the problem," Reyna said.

Renya set up a team of seven paralegals working to find more than 1,300 victims. He says the office is putting procedures in place to avoid such a backlog in the future.

"Whatever else we can do to make sure that we are on top of this so that we don't find ourselves in this predicament again," Renya said.

Santa Clara isn't the only county in this predicament. Here is a list of amounts Bay Area counties owe unknown crime victims:

Alameda County $422,545.36
Contra Costa County $145,993.45
Lake County $50,328.42
Marin County $24,246.21
Mendocino County $43,182.99
Napa County $39,010.51
San Francisco County $87,821.04
San Mateo County $202,214.26
Santa Clara County $1,085,719.67
Solano County $43,549
Sonoma County $126,705.50

As for Daniel Garcia, he says the $10,000 doesn't pay for the emotional toll the crime took, but he already has plans for the money.

"My daughter is getting married in a couple of weeks so I'll, you know, give her a nice little windfall, as well, and I get to walk her down the aisle," Garcia said.

If you think you are owed money, call your local district attorney's office and make sure they have your updated contact information. If you have a story for the I-Team, reach Dan Noyes on Facebook or Twitter, or call our tip line at 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

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