Feds outline new plan for inmates to pay victim restitution

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is proposing changes to how it runs federal prisoners’ deposit accounts in an effort to make sure victims are paid restitution, including from some high-profile inmates with large balances.

The new rule was published in the federal register Tuesday. It would automatically put 75% of money sent or donated to inmates toward victim restitution. The program would be voluntary, but prisoners would have to participate in order to get credit under the First Step Act for early release from prison or into a community facility.

The move comes as the Justice Department has faced increased scrutiny after revelations that several high-profile inmates had kept large sums of money in their prison accounts but had only made minimal payments to their victims.

The accounts are generally used for inmates to buy things like food, personal hygiene products and religious items, but they have at times been used for suspicious or illegal activity, or by inmates to shield themselves from paying debts.

For example, Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor convicted of sexually assaulting athletes, had thousands of dollars in his prison account even as he owned tens of thousands to his victims, prosecutors said in court documents filed in August 2021.

Nassar had by then paid only about $100 per year, the minimum requirement, since he first entered the federal prison system in 2017, the Washington Post first reported. A judge later ordered him to pay more toward his restitution. Funds were also seized from singer R. Kelly’s prison account to go to a restitution fund for his victims in a decades-long scheme to use his fame to sexually abuse young fans.

Inmates are allowed to keep large sums of money in their accounts, as long as they’re not dodging ordered debts like child support, alimony or restitution.

The new percentage system would “more equitably account for each inmate’s specific obligations and resources while leaving the inmate with some funds to spend within the institution and/or save for re-entry purposes,” Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters wrote in the proposed change.

Few inmates have such high-dollar accounts, though, and criminal-justice reform advocates worry that the changes could disproportionately affect those who rely on small commissary accounts behind bars and for rebuilding their lives after release.

“There’s a handful of bad actors, but this isn’t going to target them, it’s going to punish all the other guys,” said Kevin Ring, the president of the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM.

The Bureau of Prisons has said about .01% of inmates carry more than $100,000 in their accounts.

The Justice Department considered a system that would divert larger percentages from higher-value accounts, but eventually decided the Bureau of Prisons wasn’t equipped to implement it in a completely fair way, though they may consider other ways to divert more from larger balances.

The program would divert lower percentages from the small wages prisoners are paid for labor behind bars. The government will accept public comments on the new rule for the next 30 days.

The proposed change comes after Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco directed the federal prison system in 2021 to strengthen its monitoring of government-run prison deposit accounts.