Unpaid federal fines have risen sharply in the last decade, the Associated Press reports. Individuals and corporations regularly avoid large penalties for wrongdoing – sometimes through negotiations, sometimes because companies go bankrupt, sometimes due to officials’ failure to keep close track of who owes what. The government is owed more than $35 billion in fines and other payments from criminals and in civil cases, according to Justice Department figures. This is almost five times the amount uncollected 10 years ago, enough to cover the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security. A decade ago, Congress said fines should be imposed regardless of defendants’ ability to pay.
In 2004, federal authorities ordered $7.8 billion in 98,985 fines, penalties, and restitution demands in criminal and civil cases, but collected less than half of that. White-collar crime cases account for the largest amount of uncollected debt. The Government Accountability Office found that just 7 percent of restitution in such cases is paid. In many high-profile cases, fines are touted by authorities as proof that they are cracking down. Frequently those orders are quietly negotiated to just a small fraction of their original amounts.