WINDER, Ga. -
In Georgia, to catch a thief may be the easy part. Making him pay up is the real game.
To avoid going to prison, many criminals agree to pay back the money they steal. It's called restitution. If the thief failed to make payments, a judge can send them to prison, but only if they were still on probation. Only if the clock was still ticking.
"It's hard to draw that line between the guy who's running out the clock and the guy who legitimately just can't come up with the money," pointed out Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter.
But victims told the FOX 5 I-Team they believed their crook knew exactly how to play the Restitution Game.
Dennie Dennison admitted selling a stolen motorcycle to George Twitty. To stay out of prison, the 61-year-old Dennison agreed to pay $3450 in restitution to his victims, including $300 to Twitty. But nearly three years later, Dennison barely made a dent in what he owed Twitty, sending him checks of $4.35, $2.18, and $2.60.
"I was angry at first," admitted Twitty. "Now I'm just disappointed. I'm not sure who to be angry at."
Dennison was in no mood to talk to the FOX 5 I-Team.
"No comment. Get the f-- out of my face." he barked.
"But you promised when you pled guilty that you'd pay back this money and you haven't. So you've broken your promise."
"Get the f-- out of my face," responded Dennison. "What the f-- don't you understand?"
Barrow County Superior Court judge Joe Booth refused to revoke Dennison's probation after agreeing that the convicted criminal was actually selling his own blood to make payments.
"We don't have debtor prisons in this country," the judge commented from the bench. He told Dennison to try harder.
"They have sort of an argument," agreed DA Porter. "They say I have a felony conviction now. I can't get a job. I can't earn that much money."
"I think he's just gaming the system here," said an unconvinced Twitty.
He was not alone. Willie and Shere Cook was supposed to get $19,000 in restitution from Andrea Lewis Harris. She admitted forging that much in checks from Willie Cook, Sr. when she cared for him after he suffered a stroke. He died a few years later. His son said he could use that money to help with his kidney transplant. But more than 12 years after Lewis promised to pay restitution in Gwinnett County Superior Court, she was allowed to end her probation after paying only about $3000.
"I think she realized that after the first time or two she went back to court and nothing happened to her, I think her attitude became nothing's going to happen to me," argued Shere Cook. "And I think it became a joke."
Andrea Lewis told the FOX 5 I-Team she worked at a fast food restaurant in Athens and made little money. She wouldn't answer our biggest question: will she ever pay back all the money she stole?
"Many times these cases expire without fines or restitution having been paid," Barrow County judge Booth said during Dennison's hearing. "In fact, I'd probably go out on a limb here and say the large majority of which there's restitution do expire without that restitution being met."
Data provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections doesn't put it quite that high. According to their numbers, from 2013-2015, 22,547 criminals ordered to pay restitution saw their probation end. Of that number, about 27% still owed money to their victims.
In 2005, the General Assembly approved legislation that any sentence of restitution automatically became a civil judgment if it was not fully paid by the time probation ended. That meant the victim can still try to garnish wages or seize any assets from the criminal later on.
The state can also prioritize the restitution so it gets paid before any court fees are collected. According to a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Community Supervision:
"If these steps do not achieve the desired result, we utilize many intermediate sanctions short of revocation to collect restitution, e.g., administrative hearings with the chief community supervision officer, delinquency letters, etc. Also, in cases where “failure to pay restitution” is the offender’s sole violation, we must prove that the probationer has the ability to pay and his/her failure to pay is a willful act, before we can recommend revocation of the probated sentence. The collection of restitution is a priority for our department and our officers actively pursue the collection of court-ordered restitution."