Crime might not pay, but the law can force criminals to pay


Dear John,

A few years ago, I was convicted of a felony. I served my jail sentence and was released. As part of my obligation I was ordered to pay court costs, restitution to the victim and other stuff that totaled thousands of dollars. The judge ordered me to pay installments of $50 per month, but I can’t afford it. What happens if I skip a payment?


Felony Fran

Dear Fran,

Most orders of Judgment and Sentence include provisions to pay back society and the victims for the cost of the crime. This is called restitution, and it is calculated in the effort to restore the victim to the position he or she was in prior to your crime. It also helps pay for the costs associated with running the court system.

One cost that might surprise readers is that some of the court-appointed attorneys are required to be paid back after the case is over. Usually, it is a flat fee that does not accurately represent the amount of time the attorney would have charged if working at an hourly rate.

These costs can add up to significant amounts. For example, insurance companies might make a claim for payments they made to repair damaged property or for medical bills. In these cases, the expenses are so high that there is little chance that they will ever be paid back, but it remains an obligation to do it.

These costs accrue interest at 12 percent. This high rate of interest is intended to encourage the person who is obligated to make payment to work hard to pay off the balance. Sometimes, the amount of accrued interest is more than the original amount ordered.

In my experience, society is not sympathetic with people who do not pay their fines. They look at people with these obligations and judge them harshly. If these people have cellphones or cable TV, smoke cigarettes, have manicures or other “luxuries,” they are the objects of ridicule.

The law makes a distinction between those who cannot pay their obligations and those who will not pay them. The court is allowed to put people in jail, under its power to find contempt, those people who have the ability to pay but choose not to pay. At the time of sentencing, the court determines whether the convicted person is likely to be able to pay these obligations. From that time forward, it is the person’s responsibility to either pay or demonstrate that the ability to pay is not present.

Courts try very hard to avoid imprisonment of people who cannot pay their obligations. They will occasionally lower the amount of the monthly obligation.

The most important thing, and the final answer to your question, is that you should not ever skip a payment. The court would rather see a sincere effort than an insincere promise to pay in the future.



John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Any information given is to illustrate basic legal concepts and does not state how any court would decide any matter. Have a question? Ask John at


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