How to Manage Restitution Payments

For ex-offenders looking for a fresh start, restitution payments add another challenge to the already tricky task of getting their finances back in order.
Person using a calculator

As much of a relief as it is to step outside the prison gates, newly-released offenders face a variety of challenges as they reacclimate to the outside world — including financial hurdles like restitution.

In this post, we’ll guide you through the basics of restitution, including how payments are made and whether or not you can go to jail as a consequence of failing to make them.

What is a restitution payment?

Restitution is a type of loss compensation a criminal must remit to the victim of their crime.

In most cases, restitution is a sum of money, but it can also be paid by performing services as ordered by the court.

Specifics regarding how restitution payments are calculated, how often you’ll make them, and who you have to pay them to all vary based on your jurisdiction, as well as your specific case details. For instance, some restitution arrangements are even made before a criminal charge is pursued as part of a bargain for less jail time; sometimes, restitution is part of probation and taken care of through the probation department.

While the specific calculation of your restitution payments generally lies in the hands of the probation office, it’s based on your ability to pay and may be expressed as a percentage of your income. Your restitution payments should not be so high as to be out of your ability to afford them given careful budgeting.

Restitution payments cover actual damages to physical property or remuneration to the victim, so they do not include any repayment required for pain and suffering.

How do you know if you need to make a restitution payment?

In the majority of cases, restitution is ordered as part of the sentencing of a trial.

A judge will tell you whether or not you owe money to the victims.

How do you make restitution payments?

If you’re ordered to make restitution payments, the specifics around who and how you’ll remit those payments will, again, vary based on your specific case and jurisdiction.

A common scenario in criminal cases, wherein restitution is rolled into probation, involves making restitution payments directly to your parole officer, who then cuts a check to the victim. Your probation office may also have you set up to remit payments through an online system, like JPay. The specific terms of your restitution payment agreement should be made clear to you during the sentencing period, and if you have any questions, you should contact your defense attorney.

While wage garnishment laws vary by state, generally, your wages can’t be garnished for restitution payments…unless the victim institutes a civil action in an attempt to collect payment. In that case, collections attempts may include wage garnishment, as well as potentially putting liens against your property or bank account.

What happens if you don’t pay?

Many ex-offenders want to know — with good reason — if they can go back to jail for failing to repay restitution. But the answer depends on whether or not your restitution arrangement is rolled into a conditional release program, like probation.

If your restitution payments are part of your probation agreement and you fail to make them, you are violating your probation and can be sent back to jail.

If, however, you simply can’t afford to pay your restitution as agreed, it is sometimes possible to arrange an indigency hearing before the judge. Your attorney can help you make your case, which may result in lower payment amounts or a more lenient repayment schedule.

If restitution payments are demanded as part of a judgment order, and not tied to conditional release, the answer is less straightforward.

While you generally can’t be sent to jail as a direct result of your failure to pay, you may be held in contempt of court, and incarceration can be ordered as part of contempt cases.

How to manage your payments

As much of a relief as it may be to finally be free, ex-offenders face a litany of expenses upon relief — which can make managing your finances a pretty serious challenge. Restitution payments have to be worked into a larger budget, which must also account for costs like probation supervision, child support and existing debts, as well as regular living expenses.

While we’ve tackled these issues in a more in-depth guide to expenses for ex-offenders, here are some basic tips to help you reintegrate and find ways to manage your restitution payments as part of a holistic budget.

Finding employment:

Although discrimination still runs rampant, movements like the Ban the Box campaign are making moves in the right direction for ex-offenders searching for gainful employment. Online resources like the job board at can also guide you toward positions and companies that are open to those with criminal backgrounds. Finally, don’t dismiss the power of your network: contacts you make in social settings like recovery programs or in-jail job training can help you find the leads you need to connect you to available positions.


Once you have a steady stream of income, you still need to make a plan to ensure the money goes where it needs to — including toward your restitution payments. It’s important to make a comprehensive budget with every expense you’ll face on the outside, including basics like housing, food, clothing and transportation, as well as jail-adjacent costs like probation supervision fees.

If restitution in particular is part of your conditional release agreement, making payments as agreed should be a budgetary priority.

Failure to meet your probation agreements could mean an extension of your probation — or even cause the court to revoke your probation altogether and serve out the rest of your time in jail. Even if you aren’t on probation, failure to make restitution payments could lead to serious consequences, not to mention wreak havoc on your credit history, which may already be in need of credit repair.

The bottom line

Because restitution terms vary by jurisdiction, it’s always important to contact your defense attorney or reference state statutes directly if you have any outstanding questions concerning restitution. And while they may add a financial burden on the newly-released, making them as agreed is an important way to ensure your continued freedom.

Jamie Cattanach’s work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool, Roads & Kingdoms and other outlets.