The Importance of Making Data-Driven Restitution Decisions

April 28, 2022

Individuals may sustain financial losses when a crime is committed against them. One way crime victims can recoup some of these losses is through restitution. Courts order restitution as part of a person’s sentence when the victim can demonstrate they sustained financial losses (such as medical expenses, lost wages, or stolen or damaged property) as a result of the crime. Restitution can be vitally important because crime victims often lack the resources to make up for these losses on their own. However, restitution can only function as it should if policymakers have the data they need to improve it.

Importance of Data Collection and Analysis

Despite data collection improvements in the criminal justice system in recent years, the scope of restitution owed and collected nationwide is unknown. Even within a single state, there may be a lack of information about restitution. To better understand restitution trends and make the appropriate policy recommendations, policymakers and other stakeholders must be able to answer these key questions:

  • Who owes restitution?
  • How much do they owe?
  • To whom is it owed?
  • How is it collected and disbursed?

Without this information, it can be difficult to properly assess the state of restitution; diagnose potential problems; and replicate the best approaches to ordering, collecting, and disbursing restitution.

Analyzing restitution orders, payments, and disbursement requires cooperation and data sharing from multiple entities throughout the criminal justice system. This analysis is essential to ensuring that victims receive the restitution. States should collect and report key information on restitution orders, collection, and distribution annually (see the table below). For each of these areas, the demographic data of both the victim and person paying restitution should be collected and included in analyses. Collecting and analyzing this data will allow stakeholders to determine the strengths and weaknesses of current restitution processes.


Restitution Data Metrics to Be Collected and Regularly Reported


Restitution orders • Number of restitution orders

• Total amount of restitution ordered by offense type

Restitution collection • Number of collections

• Total amount collected (by month or fiscal year)

• Total amount collected by source (incarcerated person, person on supervision, etc.)

• Total amount collected by payment type (wage deduction, cash receipt, etc.)

Restitution distribution • Number of victims receiving restitution

• Total amount distributed (by month or fiscal year)

• Average payment by offense type

• Amount of time it takes to receive full payment


States Making Headway

A variety of states have made restitution improvements by collecting and analyzing key data.   

Some states, like Minnesota, centrally track all restitution orders in the state and use this information to improve the collection and distribution of restitution. A 2015 report from Minnesota’s Restitution Working Group analyzed 2010 restitution orders from the state’s Minnesota Court Information System and found that 55 percent of restitution orders were for $350 or less. Researchers analyzed restitution outcomes and found that 67 percent of all cases were satisfied 3 or more years after the restitution order. This data analysis was used to recommend that the state prioritize restitution and focus resources on making restitution processes more efficient and effective, including communicating past-due notices and accepting credit cards. Since the report was published, some counties now allow people to pay their restitution by credit card.

Other states, like Texas, collect restitution orders and payments across multiple state and local agencies. In 2009, researchers in Texas collected data from three probation departments and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s parole division. They found that because information regarding restitution and other court-ordered financial payments (e.g., court fines, child support, supervision fees) is collected among many agencies—and not in a central data repository—payments are not always prioritized according to the court orders. In response to this finding, researchers recommended greater coordination between agencies to improve the collection of restitution and other court-ordered financial obligations. Because the state does not regularly report on restitution orders and payments, it is unclear how the state has adopted or implemented changes.

In Iowa, restitution is collected by Iowa’s Central Collection Unit (CCU), the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC), and county attorneys, but all restitution orders and payment information, regardless of collector, are submitted to the Iowa Justice Data Warehouse. The Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning (CJJP) analyzed restitution orders and payments made between 2010 and 2017 by offense level and type, race, and gender. CJJP found that smaller restitution orders resulted in a higher percentage of payments and that felony and violent offenses have lower rates of payment than misdemeanor and traffic offenses. CJJP also found that 34 percent of people on DOC probation supervision paid more than half of their imposed restitution while just 6 percent of incarcerated people paid. Researchers recommended that the state implement an automated system that will notify probation and parole officers when payments are made and what legal financial obligation it applies to. If adopted, this will allow officers to better monitor and collect restitution.

As part of Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment process, The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center analyzed restitution orders and payments. CSG Justice Center researchers found that in 2013, just 5 percent of prison sentences and 4 percent of jail sentences included restitution orders, and often, victims did not receive restitution payments while people were incarcerated. Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment legislation in 2015 included enhanced collection of restitution from people sentenced to prison. After the legislation was fully implemented, the state saw an 18 percent increase in the amount of restitution collected between 2016 and 2019.


Photo by wanpatsorn via Shutterstock.


This document was produced by The Council of State Governments Justice Center, under 2019-V3-GX-K038, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this document are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

About the author

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Research Operations Manager, Research
Jessica Gonzales-Bricker provides project management support to the CSG Justice Center research team, coordinating workflows and project resources. Previously, Jessica worked as the director of research for the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute’s Center for Justice and Health and as
a research project manager at the CSG Justice Center. In her previous role at the CSG Justice Center, she analyzed data and provided policy support for multiple projects, including the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. She has also conducted research and technical assistance for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and worked as a policy analyst in the Texas House of Representatives. Jessica has a BA in political science from Baylor University and an MPA from the University of Texas at Austin. 
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