Action News Jax Investigates: Why is it so difficult for victims to collect restitution?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An Action News Jax investigation discovered that about 85 percent of criminals in Jacksonville aren't paying their court-ordered restitution to their victims.

That's roughly 2,300 people.

Action News Jax found one Jacksonville woman still owes nearly $40,000 she stole from a local church school.

“Are you Carol?” asked Action News Jax reporter Lorena Inclán.

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“Yes,” said Carol Cothran, who also goes by Carol Gregg.

“We'd love to see if we could talk to you real quick about your time at Holy Spirit Catholic School,” Inclán said.

“I'd rather not,” Cothran said.

Cothran, a convicted felon, was surprised to see us at her Orange Park home.

Back in 2003, the 45-year-old was convicted of stealing more than $50,000 from Holy Spirit Catholic School, where she worked as a bookkeeper.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office called it a "systematic ongoing scheme" where she funneled money into her own bank account over a period of five months.

As a condition of her probation, a judge ordered Cothran pay back what she stole and cover court costs and fines.

“I've put it in the past. I did everything I had to do and I don't really want to discuss it any further,” Cothran said.

According to a violation of probation document from 2014, Corthran was again arrested for not having made a single payment since 2008.

“Is there a reason why you haven't been able to pay back all of it yet?” Inclán asked.

“Other than being disabled, not being able to work. Yeah,” Cothran said.

Cothran was declared indigent 2015, but Clay County property records show she owns a home and appears to support herself.

According to Action News Jax Law & Safety expert Dale Carson, it’s rare that restitution ever gets paid back. Carson said one reason for that is that many offenders don’t have any incentive to pay the money back.

“You've already served a criminal sentence, you've paid off fines and now people want money from you which you don't have. You're going to be pretty disinclined to pay that money back,” said Carson.

We asked the Duval clerk of court, who is responsible to check if court-ordered restitution payments are being made. The answer: If the defendant isn't making the payments it’s up to the victim to "seek relief through a civil judgment."

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“You'd have to file a civil case. You may be able to get a lien on an asset that they have, but you got to get that lien. It doesn't automatically lien against an asset,” Carson said.

In January 2016, court records show, Cothran made a payment of $3.40 toward her restitution. She still owes more than $40,000.

“I'd like him to turn that camera off,” Cothran said.

“If we turn it off, will you talk to us off-camera?” Inclán asked.

“No,” Cothran said.

Cothran's probation ended November 2015. Her restitution was supposed to be court-termed at that point, but nothing has been filed in the case since February 2016.

The Diocese of St. Augustine said it was able to get the money back thanks to its insurance carrier that paid the claim. A spokeswoman declined to comment for the story because she said they've been "made whole."