Unless one of them wins the lottery, the four men convicted of burning down Minneapolis' Third Precinct station are going to be paying off the bill from that night for the next 20 years.

This month, a federal judge sentenced Bryce Michael Williams, the last of the four charged with torching the police station during last year's riots, to more than two years in federal prison for his role in starting the fire. U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Schiltz also ordered Williams to join the others in collectively paying restitution to the city of Minneapolis.

The total: $12 million.

The four men will have a difficult time making progress on that tab over the next couple years as they serve out their prison terms. If they are lucky enough to get jobs through the Federal Prison Industries, they will earn between 23 cents and $1.15 per hour.

So how will they ever pay off the full amount?

They probably won't.

"I doubt that the judge expects that any one of these defendants has $12 million lying around," said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

The eight-figure penalty represents a common gap in criminal sentencing throughout America's federal court system: The restitution bill far exceeds the defendants' financial means. Those convicted of the crime pay incremental sums, and the money never comes close to meeting restitution's purpose of returning victims back to their status quo. In reality, the U.S. Department of Justice recovers only $1 out of every $10 owed per year, making restitution sometimes symbolic or a mere formality in a criminal sentence, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.

The tab for the police station fire isn't so uncommon.

In Oregon, a judge ordered a teenage boy who started a forest fire with fireworks to pay $36.6 million in 2018.

A California judge ordered a homeless man to pay $101 million, also for a forest fire, in 2008.

A New York judge ordered Bernie Madoff to pay $170 billion for engineering the nation's most destructive financial fraud scheme.

Today, judges are often required by law to award restitution, but that wasn't always the case. In the early 20th century, judges applied restitution to probation as a form of restorative justice designed to make the victims whole again. In the 1990s, Congress passed a pair of laws that made restitution mandatory for many violent and sexual abuse crimes — including for cases like the Third Precinct arson.

That legislation has led to the staggering restitution tabs accompanying prison sentences.

Even though a person will likely never fully pay, these high-priced restitutions may serve to force the defendant to come to grips with the harm they caused, said Steve Schleicher, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Minnesota who helped secure a murder conviction for former officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd.

"I think there is value in stating the number and confronting the defendant with the actual dollar-amount damage," said Schleicher, now a law partner at Maslon LLP. " 'This is the amount of damage you caused, and in fact you're responsible for it.' "

The sticker shock may cause someone else to think twice before committing a similar crime, Schleicher said.

It's also not impossible that those convicted will one day come into a windfall. If they do end up inheriting wealth, winning the lottery or selling the rights to their life stories, prosecutors want to make sure that money goes toward the victims, said Osler.

"It's rare," he said, "but stuff happens."

Restitution as life sentence

In the Third Precinct arson case, the city of Minneapolis came up with the $12 million by estimating the costs of rebuilding, plus equipment, cleanup and overtime pay for city employees in the aftermath of the fires.

Williams, Davon De-Andre Turner, Dylan Shakespeare Robinson and Branden Michael Wolfe have all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit arson.

If they do find employment in the federal prison's UNICOR industry jobs, they will pay half their wages toward restitution. If they don't, they still pay $25 every three months. Once out on supervised release, they will start contributing small amounts — $50 to $100 per month — toward restitution. After the sentences are served, the Department of Justice takes over the collection of restitution payments from defendants.

Some who study criminal justice say high restitution sentences like this one place an unfair burden on defendants, sending them into an endless cycle of debt after release from prison.

"That can make it very, very hard for people to ever recover in their lives down the road," said Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center. "In some ways, it can be more devastating than a prison sentence."

Finding a job with a livable wage is crucial to staying crime-free after prison. But formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at rates five times higher than the general population, according to an analysis from nonpartisan think tank Prison Policy Initiative.

Those who do find jobs earn 52% less on average, entrenching them in poverty that may perpetuate the cycle of crime, according to a 2020 report from New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

Restitution can't be discharged by bankruptcy. A multimillion dollar restitution contributes to what could turn into a financial hole from which there is no escape, said Brad Colbert, a law professor who runs a legal assistance clinic for prisoners at Mitchell-Hamline law school.

"This is the equivalent of sentencing somebody to 600 years in prison," said Colbert. "This will follow them for the rest of their lives."

Colbert said he doesn't oppose restitution, but he believes the sentence should account for a person's ability to pay.

"Essentially, this becomes a judgment, and they collect on it forever," he said. "And it's not clear to me what the point of that is."

'Have mercy'

Yet the law often gives no discretion for judges and prosecutors to waive high restitutions, said Ian Birrell, a defense attorney who represented Williams.

In conspiracy cases, all defendants are required to shoulder the cost, even those who played a minor role in the crime.

In Williams' case, prosecutors say an estimated 1,000 people had gathered outside the police station that night, and many illegally entered the building. But only four have been so far convicted of helping burn it down.

Williams pleaded guilty to lighting a Molotov cocktail, which Turner used to ignite a fire. Williams also threw a box on top of a fire near the entrance of the precinct.

In court, Birrell asked that Williams be ordered to pay only $12,000, arguing that sum would be proportionate to his client's role in the damage.

"Please have mercy on me while you sentence me," Williams asked the judge.

Schiltz called Williams a "good person who made a terrible mistake." He gave the 27-year-old a shorter prison sentence than the other men. But Schiltz said he is required by law to order restitution to each victim in the full amount of each victim's losses, without consideration of the economic circumstances of the defendant.

Williams must begin making payments after he enters prison next month.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036