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What happens if you can't pay your restitution?

Restitution is designed to compensate the victims of a crime for their financial losses as much as possible. It's commonly ordered when someone is convicted of a financial crime, like embezzlement or fraud.

Restitution can't be negotiated or lowered, because it's not seen as a punishment so much as it is a debt that is owed to the victim. It also cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, so it's one debt that will literally follow you forever until it is repaid.

So, what happens if you fall behind on your restitution payments? In many cases, financial restitution is part of the requirements a convicted defendant will have in order to receive probation or parole. As you know, failing to comply with the terms of your probation or parole can send you to prison -- and falling behind on your restitution is treated as a serious lapse in compliance.

However, failing to pay your restitution doesn't automatically mean that you will go to jail -- just that you could.

Before any decision can be made, your probation officer has to look into the problem and issue a notice of violation to the state. Then, the prosecutor has to look at the situation and determine whether or not you willfully violated the restitution order. There will likely be a hearing, at which point the prosecution may try to prove that you willfully disregarded the judge's order of restitution.

If you can prove that you did not intentionally fall behind on your restitution, you won't be sent to prison for violating the terms of your parole or probation. For example, maybe you lost your job or got sick -- and that's put you behind on all your bills. Sending you to jail wouldn't exactly make it easier for you to pay your victims what you owe, so it's much more sensible to get back on track on soon as possible. Just the same, you need to realize that the court may be very suspicious about your situation.

If you're worried because you can't pay your court-ordered restitution, it's smarter to handle the issue in an up-front fashion, rather than waiting on the court to order a hearing. If you are facing a hearing over your probation violation, however, it's wisest to remember that heading into court without representation is never a good idea.

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