In South Dakota, people convicted of crimes owe their victims millions of dollars in court-ordered restitution, but most of that debt is going unpaid and there is little remedy available for those harmed to get their money.
In theory, ordering criminals to pay for damages they caused gives courts a way to provide victims some measure of financial compensation and closure. The idea is so highly valued that state courts are required by law and a recent state constitutional amendment to order defendants to pay restitution anytime there is measurable financial harm done to a victim.
In practice, state data show, criminal restitution rarely benefits the people who need the most help after being victimized. The vast majority of criminal restitution never gets paid. Over the past three fiscal years, state courts have ordered criminals to pay more than $10.4 million to their victims. Of that, courts have collected only about $2.1 million for victims.
Over that same time period, the state Unified Judicial System has sent more than $64 million in overdue court-ordered debt to the newly created South Dakota Debt Obligation Recovery Center, which can enact sanctions to prompt people to pay up.
Most of the court debt is for restitution owed to crime victims, said Greg Sattizahn, state court administrator. About $9.2 million has been collected by the combined efforts of the state court system and the ORC. Of that total, more than a third was paid toward fines and fees and not to crime victims.