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Millions of dollars in crime victim restitution is never paid

Michael Villa has no illusions about ever seeing the more than $100,000 he lost when a trusted legal secretary embezzled from his Healdsburg firm.

The secretary, April Hale of Santa Rosa, has been caught, convicted and ordered by a judge to pay him back, including thousands of dollars in expenses he suffered to investigate the crime.

But Villa knows his chances of actually collecting from a defendant who might have difficulty finding a job following prison are slim. The recession and double-digit unemployment make it even tougher for someone with felony convictions on their record.

"To get any portion back would be wonderful," said Villa, a civil attorney who said he was driven to the edge of bankruptcy by Hale. "But one has to be realistic. It's going to be tougher today because so many people are looking for work."

In fact, the poor economy and widespread unemployment are hampering efforts to collect restitution for Sonoma County crime victims, officials said.

Despite court orders of more than $8 million in formal probation cases during the past three years, the county has received only about $1.9 million in payments for victims - a collection rate of about 24.8 percent.

The figures are even worse from defendants sent to state prison, which is handled separately by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. During the past five years, prisoners have paid less than 1 percent of $12.5 million ordered, according to department statistics.

In Sonoma County, the poor return is caused in part by a 45 percent jobless rate among the county's average 3,100 people on supervised release, said Sheralynn Freitas, deputy chief probation officer.

Coupled with other problems such as chronic drug addiction and disabilities, the economic slump is making it hard for convicted criminals to pay their debts to victims, she said.

"The recession has been devastating to our population," Freitas said. "They are already down and out."

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