Judge helps crime victims

judge pajtas pic

Benjamin Gohs

News Editor

Often, when a crime has been committed against you, you are entitled to receive restitution … but what happens when the perpetrator has no means to repay you?

That’s where the Charlevoix County Victims Restitution Fund—which was recently doubled to a maximum of $2,000 per victim—comes in.

“Back when I ran for this job there was very little attention paid to crime victims. They were kind of considered as collateral damage in the criminal justice system,” Charlevoix County 33rd Circuit Judge Richard M. Pajtas told the Charlevoix County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday May 14 during the board’s regular bi-monthly meeting… “Usually when there was a criminal case in circuit court, crime victims would be subpoenaed to appear at hearings or trials when their testimony was necessary but otherwise they weren’t apprised of the various stages of the proceedings. When they were subpoenaed to court they were waiting in the hallways to be called as a witness and so forth and mixed with other people and, oftentimes, harassed by family members of the defendant and … and intimidated.”
He added, “They had no right to be consulted, let alone give any input about plea-bargains, plea negotiations. They had no right to give any comments about the disposition of a criminal case, to appear at sentencings.”

Pajtas explained the history of the victim restitution fund—which was formed locally in 1985—before requesting the maximum disbursement for crime victims to be raised from the long-standing amount of $1,000 per victim, set at that level in 1992.

“Oftentimes they would receive an order for restitution but maybe they would someday collect it,” he said. “During that time I made the statement that, if you’d been the victim of a crime, you had probably been a victim not once but twice—once at the hands of the criminal, once at the hands of the criminal justice system.”
Pajtas added, “So, when the community gave me the opportunity to do something about it, we immediately made some changes. We saw to it that crime victims were notified of all stages of the proceedings. They have a right to be consulted during plea negotiations—not a right to have the final say but a right to be explained the advantages and disadvantages of a plea agreement. They have a right to give a written victims impact statement to the court and to have it considered. And, a right to have that statement made a part of the pre-sentence investigation report. They have a right to appear at the sentencing and to testify in court as to the impact the crime had upon them … and restitution is now mandatory.”

The Crime Victims Restitution Fund helps ensure that, even if the perpetrator of a crime cannot pay court-ordered restitution immediately, the victim of his/her crime will receive at least some of the restitution owed to them.

When the local program began nearly 30 years ago it was funded by a fee of $50 paid to the court by offenders. Back then, the maximum allocation to a victim was $200.

“It’s one thing to order restitution to be made to a crime victim … it’s another thing to receive it,” Pajtas said. “In circuit court, the crimes we deal with are usually serious assault crimes, sexual assault crimes, serious significant property crimes, homicides and drug crimes.”

Pajtas said defendants with the ability to pay are often made to pay. He also said those defendants who are not in prison are often ordered to seek and maintain employment so they may pay their victim restitution.

However, Pajtas said, there is often a long delay in restitution and quick repayment to crime victims is important.

Pajtas told commissioners that the monthly average balance in the fund is in excess of $10,000.

“I think that, if you agreed to allow us to increase that cap … that the fund would still be perpetuated and would allow us to compensate victims more fully to what relates to their losses,” he said.

Charlevoix County Commissioner Chris Christensen (R-District 2) mentioned including language in the resolution that was explicit that the new restitution cap of $2,000 would be allowable so long as the fund was self-funded and does not need subsidizing from the county’s general fund.

Charlevoix County Commissioner Larry Sullivan (R-District 6) asked if there have been any instances in the past couple years where the higher restitution level would have been needed.

Pajtas said probably half the cases he sees meet the cap.

“Somebody had an automobile destroyed by arson … and I think the insurance coverage was there but it didn’t cover all of it so the loss, for example, was for $1,500. We were able to pay $1,000 so the victim was out $500,” Pajtas said.

He added, “We still order the defendant to pay that restitution only instead of going to the clerk’s office and to the crime victim it goes back into the restitution fund. So they don’t get out of it just because we use the fund.”

Pajtas said there have been cases where the restitution is much higher than the cap.

“I’m very supportive of this program,” Sullivan said.

Charlevoix County Commissioner George T. Lasater (R-District 1) asked if he should recuse himself from the vote because he had been a victim of a crime where the court had ordered restitution. However, the board’s civil counsel said Lasater’s case from two-or-so years ago would have no bearing on this vote.

The board approved the motion to increase the cap to $2,000 by a unanimous vote.