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National Crime Victim Law Institute

Featured Right: Restitution

November 20, 2011

Restitution is money paid from the offender to the victim for losses that the victim suffered as a result of the offender’s crime.  The right to restitution is a vital component of ensuring that victims of crime are treated fairly and with dignity; it plays a pivotal role in making sure that victims receive the financial assistance they need to begin to address the impact that the defendant’s crime has had on their lives and helps them in moving toward survivorship.

While restitution law varies from jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction, generally courts can order restitution for a broad range of victim losses including the value of property, medical costs, counseling costs, lost income (including future lost income), funeral costs, and expenses incurred during the victim’s participation in the investigation and prosecution, such as child care and transportation.

Like many aspects of the justice system, restitution also functions as societal acknowledgement of harm to the victim.  This is important because if courts award only partial restitution or restitution that covers impact of a limited duration (for example, only six months of counseling), victims experience invalidation; they are implicitly told that the crime wasn’t very serious, that they should ‘get over it’ within that period of time.  Telling a rape victim or the mother of a homicide victim that she should be over it in six months, or even years, fundamentally fails to acknowledge the real impact of crime.  Our justice system must do better by ordering full restitution for all victim losses today and into the future.

Restitution also plays a role in the system’s response to the offender.  This component of sentencing helps further society’s interest in holding defendants personally responsible for the financial impact their actions have on the lives of those they harm.  Courts have described restitution as important in the response to the offender for purposes of punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, and compensation.

As noted above, restitution law varies across jurisdictions.  Depending upon the jurisdiction’s statutory or constitutional provisions, the right to restitution can be mandatory or discretionary, and can entitle the victim to full or partial restitution.   Every state has a statutory provision providing some right to restitution, and at least eighteen states have enshrined the right in their constitutions.  A number of states make restitution mandatory in virtually all cases.  Several states mandate restitution or require a court to state on the record their reasons for failing to order restitution.  In other states, restitution orders are made at the discretion of the court.  On the federal level, the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (MVRA) requires the court to order restitution in certain cases for each victim in the full amount of the victim’s out-of-pocket losses.

The right to restitution is an important right to victims and one that NCVLI is deeply committed to protecting.  We regularly engage in legal advocacy related to restitution to ensure that courts uphold this promise to victims.  To request technical assistance on a restitution-related issue, please click here


© 2011 National Crime Victim Law Institute