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Program Profile: Effects of Information Letters on Paying Restitution (Pennsylvania)

Evidence Rating: Promising - One study Promising - One study

Date: This profile was posted on August 01, 2016

Program Summary

This experiment tested whether sending a monthly letter to probationers who had been court-ordered to pay restitution would affect how much they paid. The program is rated Promising. Probationers who received letters showing how much they had paid already and how much they owed paid significantly higher amounts and made significantly more monthly payments than probationers who received no letters.

This program’s rating is based on evidence that includes at least one high-quality randomized controlled trial.

Program Description

Program Goals/Components
Although Pennsylvania passed a law in 1995 that mandated restitution (i.e., court-ordered payment from an offender to a crime victim for the harm that was caused by the crime); it was found that only about half of the victims in the state received their full restitution (Ruback, Cares, and Hoskins 2008). As a result, researchers at the Pennsylvania State University conducted an experiment to test whether sending a monthly letter that contained specific information would affect how much money the probationers paid. The experiment sought to determine if a small-scale intervention (i.e., sending the monthly letters with non-coercive messages) could help to change offenders’ behavior and benefit society by increasing restitution payments.
Specifically, the experiment analyzed the relative impact of three types of letters:
  1. Information Only: Probationers received a letter that contained information about how much they owed originally (in total and by type of economic sanction), how much money they still owed, and how much they had paid to that point.
  2. Rationale Only: Probationers received a letter that described why the economic sanctions were legitimate and why they should pay their restitution. The letter emphasized the acknowledgement of harm, the taking of responsibility, and the increased likelihood of success when payments were made.
  3. Information and Rationale: Probationers received a letter that combined both the information about amount owed, paid, and remaining, as well as the rationale for payment of restitution.
In addition to increasing the likelihood of restitution payment, the experiment sought to determine which of the three letters resulted in the greatest increase in restitution payments. Probationers were randomly assigned to receive only one type of letter (a fourth group of control probationers received no letters). Probationers received a letter once a month, for 6 months.

Program Theory
The Information Only letter, which provided probationers with information about how much money they originally owed and how much they still owed, represents certain aspects of procedural justice. This information can be important because offenders may not know how much money they owe: at sentencing judges typically issue an order that all applicable economic sanctions be imposed, rather than listing all of the individual sanctions that are imposed. Although information alone may not cause people to change their behaviors, having the information should provide them with a better understanding of the penalties that had been imposed by the courts, which is an important part of perceived legitimacy (Ruback, Gladfelter, and Lantz 2014).

Evaluation Outcomes

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Study 1
Average Amount of Restitution Paid
Ruback, Gladfelter, and Lantz (2014) found that the amount of restitution paid by probationers who were sent the monthly Information Only letters was significantly higher than that paid by the control group probationers, who received no letters. Probationers in the Information Only condition paid an average of $652, compared with an average $248 paid by probationers in the control group, at 12 months after the first letter was sent out. However, the amount of restitution paid by probationers who received the Rationale Only letters and the Information and Rationale letters did not significantly differ from control probationers who received no letters.
Average Number of Months of Restitution Payments
Similarly, probationers who received Information Only letters paid out restitution over a significantly greater number of months (average 2.25 months), compared with control group probationers (average 1.41 months) at the 12 month follow up. However, payments over the 12-month follow up did not significantly differ across the Rationale Only, Information and Rationale, and the control groups.
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Evaluation Methodology

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Study 1
Ruback, Gladfelter, and Lantz (2014) used an experimental design to test the effects of sending monthly letters to probationers who owed restitution to crime victims. The 771 study participants were randomly assigned to one of the following four conditions: 1) Information Only (probationers received monthly letters [for 6 months] with information about what they owed, how much their monthly payments had been, and how much they still owed); 2) Rationale Only (probationers received a monthly letter [for 6 months] describing why the economic sanctions were legitimate and why they should pay their restitution); 3) Information-and-Rationale (probationers received a letter combining both the information about the amounts owed, paid, and remaining, and the rationale for payment of restitution); or 4) the control condition (probationers received no letters).  

About 75 percent of the total study sample was male. More than 80 percent were white, 15 percent were black, 3 percent were other, and the remaining participants did not have race information. The average age at conviction was 34 years. At least 56 percent of the crimes were property offenses, 11 percent were person crimes (including simple assault, aggravated assault, and robbery). Other crimes included DUIs and drug offenses.  

Data was collected from the Centre County Probation Department using two separate case-management systems (at the state and county level). Additional information was collected from the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System. Information was collected on when payments were made and the amount paid toward each of the economic sanctions ordered for each offender. Information was collected for the first 6 months of the study, at 9 months after the study began, and at 12 months after the study began (i.e., after the first letter was sent out). The first letters were sent out on April 19, 2012, and the study ended in December 2012. 
The outcomes of interest included the amount of restitution paid overall and by month, and the number of monthly payments. Attrition in the study was defined as letters that were sent back as undeliverable. Because the control group had no attrition (they received no letters), the differential attrition was addressed by analyzing the treatment groups using an intent-to-treat approach. Data on the restitution payments was analyzed using analysis of variance.

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Ruback, Gladfelter, and Lantz (2014) reviewed the cost-effectiveness of sending out letters to probationers about paying restitution they still owed, compared with sending out no letters. The study authors estimated that the overall cost of supplies and labor to send out the letters was $9,600. Based on the results of the study, they estimated that the net gain in restitution paid by probationers who received the Information Only letter (that would not have been paid in the absence of the letter) was approximately $52,000 more than payments received by the control group. This means that probationers who received the Information Only letters paid approximately $6.44 for every dollar spent sending out the letters.
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Implementation Information

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Copies of the Information Only and Rationale Only letters are available in the appendix to the 2014 study by Ruback, Gladfelter, and Lantz (see Evidence Base for a full reference):
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Evidence-Base (Studies Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Study 1
Ruback, R. Barry, Andrew S. Gladfelter, and Brendan Lantz. 2014. “Paying Restitution: Experimental Analysis of the Effects of Information and Rationale.” Criminology & Public Policy 13(3):405–36.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Ruback, R. Barry, Alison C. Cares, and Stacy N. Hoskins. 2008. “Crime Victims’ Perceptions of Restitution: The Importance of Payment and Understanding.” Violence and Victims 23:697–710.

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Program Snapshot

Age: 18+

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Black, White, Other

Geography: Suburban

Setting (Delivery): Other Community Setting

Program Type: Probation/Parole Services, Restorative Justice, Court Processing, Reminders/Notifications

Current Program Status: Not Active

R. Barry Ruback
Department of Sociology and Criminology, Penn State University
211 Oswald Tower
University Park PA 16802