Paying restitution: Experimental analysis of the effects of information and rationale

R. Barry Ruback, Andrew S. Gladfelter, Brendan Lantz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Most crime victims do not receive the restitution they are owed. This study is an experiment that addresses two reasons offenders give for why they do not pay their court-ordered restitution: (a) lack of understanding of how much they owe and where their payments are directed and (b) a belief that the sanctions are unfair. A total of 771 offenders were randomly assigned to one of four conditions in a 2 × 2 between-subjects design in which, over a 6-month period, three quarters of the offenders received monthly letters that contained (a) information or no information about the economic sanctions they had paid and what they still owed (Information manipulation) and (b) a statement or no statement about reasons for paying restitution (Rationale manipulation). The remaining offenders did not receive a letter. The results 1 year after the experiment began (6 months after the last letter had been sent) indicated that offenders who had received letters containing information (Information condition) paid significantly more money and made significantly more monthly payments than did offenders in the other three experimental conditions. A cost-effectiveness analysis indicated that for every dollar spent on the experimental manipulation, approximately $6.44 in restitution was received. Policy Implications: Research on deterrence has suggested that threatened punishment can lead to compliance only if the threat is real. The problem with such enforcement measures, however, is that this type of deterrence is too expensive to be broadly imposed. By contrast, inducing offenders to act based on internal motivation rather than in response to external contingencies of reward and punishment can lead to long-term behavior change. This study suggests that informing offenders on a regular basis about how much restitution they have paid and how much they still owe can lead them to pay more restitution and to make more monthly payments. We believe these effects primarily are the result of a change in internal motivation because if it were fear of being monitored that led to the increased payments, then the absence of monitoring (i.e., no letters for 6 months) should have reduced that fear, meaning that payments should have been reduced. They were not. Although the question of the generalizability of the procedure remains open, the results of this experiment suggest that, at relatively little cost (because information about payments was gathered from individuals' court dockets publicly available on the Web), governments can increase restitution payments, benefiting victims, society, and perhaps the offenders themselves.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)405-436
Number of pages32
JournalCriminology and Public Policy
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Administration
  • Law


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