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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."

Restitution is money defendants are ordered to pay to victims to compensate them for losses or injuries caused by their crimes. It is ordered by a trial judge in addition to fines or punishment such as incarceration.

Payments from those sentenced to jail or county probation are tracked through the county auditor's office.

Although the crime rate has dropped in recent years, the amount of restitution ordered has gone up as attention has focused on victims' rights. Prosecutors locally also have taken a more active role in securing money.

In 2003, victims' advocates were transferred from the Probation Department to the District Attorney's Office. The staff of about a half-dozen advocates counsel crime victims on how to navigate the system and apply for restitution and other benefits.

Last year, then-District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua announced his office had obtained more than $9 million in restitution orders.

State law mandates restitution must be paid first and cannot be dissolved through bankruptcy.

"The law strives to ensure victims who suffer economic losses are basically made financially whole," said Christine Cook, assistant district attorney.

However, collecting the money has proven difficult. About 24 percent of those currently on probation have no legal income, 30 percent have monthly income of less than $1,000 and 28 percent have income of $1,000-$2,000, Freitas said.

Only 24 percent are employed full time and about 20 percent have part-time work, she said.

Nearly 700 probation cases have terminated with no restitution paid, she said.

"We're dealing with a very challenging population," she said.

Victims of certain kinds of violent crimes can seek money from the California Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board. The agency gets money through fines levied in court.

But the 45-year-old agency, which has distributed more than $2 billion, is struggling because claims are outpacing revenues. The sluggish economy and an inability of defendants to pay fines is to blame, officials said.

That leaves victims like Villa with even less hope. He is seeking about $179,000 to compensate him for his losses.

"I have no realistic expectation of seeing any significant amount of it," Villa said. "It's really about the principle."