Crime victims took center stage in this month’s mayoral race in Cleveland.
Crime and safety was the centerpiece of challenger Zack Reed’s campaign. In fact, he talked about crime so much, he eventually dragged Mayor Frank Jackson into the conversation.
Across Ohio, Marsy’s Law, which calls for specific rights for victims, was a widely debated issue. Voters approved it by a whopping 83 percent of the vote.
So many crimes, so many victims. And so much attention to victims.
But when it comes to making them whole, victims still find themselves ignored and victimized again.
A Channel 3 News investigation found $8 million owed to crime victims just in Cuyahoga County. While judges ordered defendants to repay victims for property losses, few are able or willing to pay up.
This year, about $7.5 million of restitution is unpaid.
In addition, thousands of dollars of restitution sits unclaimed because the county cannot locate the victims. The amounts range from less than a dollar to more than $5,000.
And while the county says they cannot locate these victims, Channel 3 News was able to find several in a matter of hours.
One was a Cleveland woman living on the city's West Side. She has about $650 coming to her. The county claims they can't find her, but the woman questions whether restitution is a priority.
"They're not listening to the people who have been victimized," the woman said. She asked that her name not be used.
She is one of four victims of Patrick Cassese.
Cassese is a businessman and now the owner of a vast alpaca and llama farm in Huron County. He’s also a felon who owes thousands to his former employees, whose retirement savings he stole almost 10 years ago.
Cassese, 72, is making restitution, however. To the tune of $50 a month.That's for four victims to divide.
While Cassese owns a herd of 50 animals, worth about $10,000 each, he told the Investigator Tom Meyer that he’s barely able to make ends meet.
His victims say Cassese is duping the system by understating his income. They point out that Cassese will be about 114 years old when he makes his final restitution payment.
“It’s very significant because I have all kinds of bills to pay. I have medical issues," said one of Cassese’s victims, whose 401k was stripped of $15,000. Cassese has repaid about $3,000.
“I believe Patrick Cassese is playing with the system.”
If Cassese is flaunt the court system, he’s not alone.
But the state’s court legal system is hamstrung to take action. Judges can no longer send a defendant to prison or extend probation for failing to pay restitution.
“There’s virtually no consequences and that's the problem,” said Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz. “Victims end up being victimized again.”
That’s how some victims said they felt when contacted by Channel 3 News about their unclaimed restitution. Some say they don’t believe the county is doing enough to connect victims with their money.
“It’s not hard to find people,” said Cleveland-area resident Julia Allen. “You found me.”
The county is holding $250 in restitution paid by a home-health worker who stole from an elderly family member related to Allen. While Allen's family member has died, the county made no effort to locate the next of kin.
"The problem is effort,” Allen said. “There is no effort being placed into doing this."
Incredibly, it’s more than victims and their families who have unclaimed money. RTA, county offices. Fast food restaurants. Banks and stores are all listed as beneficiaries of victim restitution money being held by the county.
Restitution is different than the crime victim’s fund operated by the state. Restitution is ordered mostly in cases of property losses. The crime victim’s fund covers victim expenses, such as counseling and funerals.
Common Pleas Administrative Judge John J. Russo said a two-worker staff is charged with locating and connecting victims with restitution money. They use a data base search website to find victims.
He said budget cuts have made the process a challenge, and that searching for next-of-kin beneficiaries is not part of the process.
But, he added, that some shortcomings pointed out by Channel 3 News – such as the county holding restitution payments for popular businesses and government offices - is cause to perhaps reexamine how the restitution process is conducted by the court.
“You bring up some very good points,” he said. “To step back and say, here’s a list of victims and what do we need to do to make sure that they’re not victimized again.”
Leanne Graham, executive director of the Victims Assistance Program in Summit County said more needs to be done and laws need to be re-evaluated to ensure crime victims are not ignored.
“Victims are very frustrated when the court orders restitution and they don’t see a penny of it,” she said.