Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting’s series about Maine’s victim restitution program.
BANGOR — Steven Bell stood before a judge at Penobscot Judicial Center, answering questions about the $1,083 he owes in restitution for a theft that happened nine years ago.
It was 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 20, and until 4 p.m., District Court Judge Gregory Campbell would be hearing from criminal offenders who had been brought back by the court to check up on their promise to pay restitution to their victims.
While shushing his toddler at his side, Bell said he hoped to pay the restitution in full with a tax refund he’d been expecting since March.
“Can you put something down on this today?” asked Judge Campbell.
In Maine and nationwide, state laws allow the courts to impose restitution orders on felons who have caused financial harms to their victims — from bad checks to stolen TVs to fraud. These agreements often include a reduced sentence in exchange for the restitution.
But a recent Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting investigation found this program offers false hope to victims because — due to factors like poor enforcement and limited coordination among state agencies — they often never get the restitution or get paid in small increments over many years.
That afternoon in court, three offenders who owe victims restitution came before Judge Campbell. Their cases illustrate common issues the courts have in enforcing restitution agreements. One had been successfully paying back restitution — little by little — on a payment plan; another had failed to stick to a payment plan; and the third left promising to return with money and never returned.
When it comes to offenders who haven’t paid the restitution they owe, judges and others in the courts work with them to make payment plans.
The courts must also determine who’s unable to make payments and who could pay, but willfully refuses to. Doing so could mean six months in jail — a costly option for the state, and one that still leaves the felon unable to earn money to pay the victims.
Many offenders are poor, said Charles LaVerdiere, chief judge for Maine district courts, and can have a tough time finding and keeping jobs, according to Maine criminal defense attorneys.
Appearing first before Judge Campbell was Bell, who in 2005 pled guilty to passing bad checks following a University of Maine police investigation.
“I literally don’t have anything today,” Bell said. “I get paid next Wednesday. I mean as far as like my daycare costs, I pay my rent, my car payments, everything. Right now, I’m literally strapped.”
Then, he pointed to the back of the courtroom where a woman held a stroller. “I just had a newborn child,” Bell said.
“To be honest with you, Your Honor, if you look at the records there, you’ll see that until 2012, I didn’t even know about this,” said Bell. “There wasn’t a single disposition hearing …”
Judge Campbell cut in.
“Mr. Bell, Mr. Bell, take a deep breath,” he said. “You signed a judgment permitting it, so the argument that you didn’t know about it is not all that persuasive.”
Bell said he called the court several times from 2005 to 2012 and was told he “didn’t owe anything.”
Judge Campbell asked Susan Pope, assistant district attorney for Penobscot County, what she “would want to do in this matter.”
“Well, that’s a good question, your honor,” Pope said. It was an old file, she said, and court records showed an attempt to get a payment in 2011.
When Judge Campbell asked Bell about his current employment, Bell said he works on commission as a manager at a marketing firm and earns between $400-600 a week.
“How much can you pay on a monthly or weekly basis to get this knocked out?” asked Judge Campbell.
Bell said he could pay $30 a month.
“Literally, my funds are so strapped, sir, that I’m working from home three days a week now because I can’t afford daycare,” he said. “I don’t get state assistance or anything like that. I work to support my family by myself.”
Assistant DA Pope said it “makes no sense to go to $30 a month,” because Bell hadn’t made a payment on a $20 monthly plan he agreed to in May.
Bell could have “one more opportunity” to make the $20 payment, Pope said. She recommended scheduling a hearing for several months away “to see if he’s made a payment.”
At the next hearing, Campbell told Bell he “would have to show cause as far as why he has not been making those payments.” He suggested Bell apply for free counsel.
“You don’t want to be in a situation where you are unrepresented and the state is seeking to put you in jail in this matter,” Judge Campbell said.
Bell said he’d rather represent himself.
“I’ve already lost a lot of faith in the legal system … It’s very frustrating, very concerning actually,” he said.
Judge Campbell looked at Bell and said, “Mr. Bell, we’re not getting anywhere.”
He asked Bell to sign the personal recognizance bail bond to ensure he would show up for the next hearing.
After Bell said he was concerned about signing it, Judge Campbell examined Bell’s court records and decided there was no need for the bond.
“I’ve never failed to show up here,” Bell said.
“I think you’re absolutely right, Mr. Bell,” said the judge. “I will vacate the order as far as PR bail, and we’ll take you on your word. But you do need to be here on October 1 at 2:30.”
Bell thanked him, and the judge said, “Good luck.”
* * *
The next person to stand before Judge Campbell was Tania Perry. In 2005, Perry — then a 20-year-old living in Bangor — was charged with burglary and was sentenced to two years probation, two years jail with all but 30 days suspended and ordered to pay $2,806.85 in restitution to her victim. (Available court records do not indicate the identity of the victim.)
“Good afternoon, Ms. Perry, how are you?” said Judge Campbell.
“Good,” she replied.
Pope, the assistant DA, said Perry still owed $1,715 and had been making regular payments between $10 and $20.
“And she is also no longer receiving public assistance, your Honor,” Pope said. “She is working full time.”
Judge Campbell smiled: “I’m familiar with Ms. Perry. She’s been doing a great job,” he said.
Pope agreed and said Perry would make her next payment at the end of September. The court scheduled another hearing for November “to allow her to continue to make her payments,” Pope said.
The judge asked Perry to sign a personal recognizance bail bond.
“Not because I don’t think you’ll appear, just so it’s easier to remember the date,” Campbell said. “Something on paper.”
Pope, the judge and Perry agreed to keep the monthly payment at $10.
Although Perry is living up to the court’s payment plan, at the rate’s she paying it will take at least 14 more years for her burglary victim to get the full restitution.
* * *
Last September, Raymond Buxton of Dexter was convicted on two counts of unlawful possession of a scheduled drug, sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay a $400 fine and $930 restitution. (Available records do not name the victim.)
By his first hearing in front of Judge Campbell, Buxton had not paid any of the restitution.
Before appearing in front of the judge, Buxton told prosecutors he had come with a $200 personal check to put towards his restitution. But Assistant DA Pope said Buxton was “already aware” before he came to court that a personal check was unacceptable.
Buxton promised to cash the check and return, and Pope and other officials agreed to let him leave the courthouse that afternoon.
By 3:45 p.m., there was no sign of Buxton. Assistant DA Pope recommended to Judge Campbell that he issue a warrant for Buxton with bail set at $140.
“Your Honor, I don’t know what else to do at this point in time,” Pope said.
Judge Campbell said, “Since he was here and it appears he was making an effort to pay this, rather than issue a warrant, it seems as though it would make sense to continue this case for a week or two.”
Pope then told the judge that Buxton had enough money in January to buy a $2,400 vehicle. Also, he paid his court fines in June by credit card, yet he has claimed he didn’t understand he owed restitution, Pope said.
Pope said she had recently showed Buxton the order he agreed to.
“I indicated that since he had all these other payments that he was able to make, that we would then seek” an enforcement hearing, Pope said. That’s when Buxton said he could make a $200 payment.
Yet Pope said she was “willing to concede to the court and reset this, and we’ll just try again at the next stage,” she said. “But, I think we made a genuine effort to try to work with him about this … ”
“I’m not suggesting you didn’t,” said Judge Campbell.
The judge said Pope persuaded him and looked at the clock.
“He promised to come back with money; it’s now eight minutes of four,” he said. “He hasn’t come back. The court’s going to issue a warrant, and it’s going to be $140 cash bail.”
A Sept. 16 interview with assistant district attorney Susan Pope has revealed what happened after Buxton left the courthouse that day.
That afternoon, Pope came upon Buxton sitting in a car he had recently purchased and outfitted with vanity plates, which cost $25 more than a standard plate.
“A gentleman saying he doesn’t have the money to pay restitution, when he doesn’t have a job, is driving a car with vanity plates,” Pope said.
Buxton receives disability benefits and is unable to work, according to Pope.
Pope told him there was a warrant out for his arrest.
Buxton then came to the courthouse and made a $200 payment, and Pope asked the court to withdraw the warrant. She said she does not know if he’s made any payments since.
Buxton will next appear in court on this matter on Nov. 26, “to allow him time to establish that he is going to abide by his restitution agreement he made with us,” Pope said.
If he hasn’t been keeping up with the agreement, the court would have a hearing where “we’d be able to present all the evidence we might have as to why we feel he’s willfully choosing just not to pay his restitution,” Pope said. “And certainly the fact that somebody is driving around with a vanity plate isn’t going to look good for this defendant.”
When it comes to offenders who haven’t paid restitution, there are those who “have profound difficulties paying restitution,” Pope said.
“It’s a real struggle for the court. Do you continue to have these hearings? And do you get your $5, $10, $15, $20 a month out of these defendants? For which they’ve lawfully been found guilty, and they owe this money. Without even that much, there’s nothing to make that victim right many times.”
Then, said Pope, there are those “like Mr. Buxton who, quite honestly from my perspective, appears to be willfully choosing not to pay and to spend all his money on everything else except for making his victims whole.”