Two years after the Napa County courts began cracking down on delinquent payments to victims, payments have increased fivefold.
The program, called Restitution Court, targets people on probation who are making payments slowly or not at all. More than 40 people have participated in Restitution Court since it began in March 2016. Before joining the court, those participants paid an average of roughly $40 per month, according to the District Attorney’s Office. The same people paid an average of $225 per month after joining the court.
That works out to a total of $108,000 in restitution payments made by that group in the past two years, up from $28,000 before the court began, statistics show.
Even a judge who was once skeptical of the program says he sees no drawbacks now.
“Victims were upset and disappointed and didn’t really know who to blame,” said Paul Gero of the District Attorney’s Office, who first pitched the idea of a Restitution Court. “It just seemed like a missing piece in our county.”
Restitution courts can be found across the country, but they aren’t a common type of specialty court. Specialty courts focus on a single kind of offense or offender, such as drugs, mental health, the environment or veterans.
Alameda County was the only county in the state with such a program at the time he began exploring the idea of a Restitution Court, Gero said. Now, other district attorneys ask Napa for advice on creating a Restitution Court in their county, he said.
Gero asked the court to consider piloting Restitution Court for one hour per month.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work or not, but I thought it’s worth trying,” he said. “That’s 12 hours of court time” in a year.
A typical day in Restitution Court begins at 11 a.m., on the third Monday of the month, inside the Criminal Courthouse on Third Street. Ten to 15 people on probation gather and discuss matters such as their employment situation, whether payment amounts are too high or too low, and when they are needed back in court.
People who are owed restitution are allowed to speak, too. Someone who has keeping up with regular payments may not return for months. Some people owe tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Judge Mark Boessenecker, who has presided over the court since it began, was initially skeptical of the program. The courts have suffered so many budget cuts that he worried about squeezing another commitment into an already packed schedule. But two years after its inception, Boessenecker said he has a positive view of the program.
“The biggest thing I’m seeing is that they are recognizing that people are paying attention to whether they’re making their payments,” he said.
Before someone is admitted to Restitution Court, Edward Whittington, who handles restitution matters for the Napa County Probation Department, said he reviews their file and takes a look at their employment status, income, expenses and how much they’re paying in restitution. Sometimes, people have unnecessary expenses such as gym memberships, nail appointments or going out that could be redirected to the person who is owed restitution, he said.
“They feel better that they’re [paying restitution],” Whittington said. It “shows that they can do the right thing and it’s up to them how they want their future.”
In court, people who owe restitution are asked personal questions. Initially, there tends to be a shock factor, but people seem to get used to the prying, he said.
One of the probationers is a young man who was unemployed prior to joining Restitution Court, Whittington said. He’s been working four or five months now in his first real job and is paying hundreds more per month than he used to, he said.
Participants who leave Restitution Court do so with a smile because they know they’ve completed what they were required to do, and they can move on with their lives, he said.
“It may not be a lot,” Whittington said. “But if we can get as much as we can to the victim, it’s all worth it.”