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decided: November 12, 1986.



Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Brennan, White, Blackmun, O'connor, and Scalia, JJ., joined. Marshall, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, J., joined, post, p. 53.

Author: Powell

[ 479 U.S. Page 38]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted review in this case to decide whether restitution obligations, imposed as conditions of probation in state criminal proceedings, are dischargeable in proceedings under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code.


In 1980, Carolyn Robinson pleaded guilty to larceny in the second degree. The charge was based on her wrongful receipt of $9,932.95 in welfare benefits from the Connecticut Department of Income Maintenance. On November 14, 1980, the Connecticut Superior Court sentenced Robinson to a prison term of not less than one year nor more than three years. The court suspended execution of the sentence and

[ 479 U.S. Page 39]

     placed Robinson on probation for five years. As a condition of probation, the judge ordered Robinson to make restitution*fn1 to the State of Connecticut Office of Adult Probation (Probation Office) at the rate of $100 per month, commencing January 16, 1981, and continuing until the end of her probation.*fn2

On February 5, 1981, Robinson filed a voluntary petition under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U. S. C. § 701 et seq., in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Connecticut. That petition listed the restitution obligation as a debt. On February 20, 1981, the Bankruptcy Court notified both of the Connecticut agencies of Robinson's petition and informed them that April 27, 1981, was the deadline for filing objections to discharge. The agencies did not file proofs of claim or objections to discharge, apparently because they took the position that the bankruptcy would not affect the conditions of Robinson's probation. Thus, the agencies did not participate in the distribution of Robinson's estate. On May 14, 1981, the Bankruptcy Court granted Robinson a discharge. See § 727.

At the time Robinson received her discharge in bankruptcy, she had paid $450 in restitution. On May 20, 1981, her attorney wrote the Probation Office that she believed the discharge had altered the conditions of Robinson's probation, voiding the condition that she pay restitution. Robinson made no further payments.

The Connecticut Probation Office did not respond to this letter until February 1984, when it informed Robinson that it

[ 479 U.S. Page 40]

     considered the obligation to pay restitution non-dischargeable. Robinson responded by filing an adversary proceeding in the Bankruptcy Court, seeking a declaration that the restitution obligation had been discharged, as well as an injunction to prevent the State's officials from forcing Robinson to pay.

After a trial, the Bankruptcy Court entered a memorandum and proposed order, concluding that the 1981 discharge in bankruptcy had not altered the conditions of Robinson's probation. Robinson v. McGuigan, 45 B. R. 423 (1984). The court adopted the analysis it had applied in a similar case decided one month earlier, In re Pellegrino (Pellegrino v. Division of Criminal Justice), 42 B. R. 129 (1984). In Pellegrino, the court began with the Bankruptcy Code's definitional sections. First, § 101(11) defines a "debt" as a "liability on a claim." In turn, § 101(4) defines a "claim" as a "right to payment, whether or not such right is reduced to judgment, liquidated, unliquidated, fixed, contingent, matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, legal, equitable, secured, or unsecured." Finally, § 101(9) defines a "creditor" as an "entity that has a claim against the debtor that arose at the time of or before the order for relief concerning the debtor."

The Pellegrino court then examined the statute under which the Connecticut judge had sentenced the debtor to pay restitution. Restitution appears as one of the conditions of probation enumerated in Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-30 (1985). Under that section, restitution payments are sent to the Probation Office. The payments then are forwarded to the victim. Although the Connecticut penal code does not provide for enforcement of the probation conditions by the victim, it does authorize the trial court to issue a warrant for the arrest of a criminal defendant who has violated a condition of probation. § 53a-32.

Because the Connecticut statute does not allow the victim to enforce a right to receive payment, the court concluded

[ 479 U.S. Page 41]

     that neither the victim nor the Probation Office had a "right to payment," and hence neither was owed a "debt" under the Bankruptcy Code. It argued: "Unlike an obligation which arises out of a contractual, statutory or common law duty, here the obligation is rooted in the traditional responsibility of a state to protect its citizens by enforcing its criminal statutes and to rehabilitate an offender by imposing a criminal sanction intended for that purpose." 42 B. R., at 133. The court acknowledged the tension between its conclusion and the Code's expansive definition of debt, but found an exception to the statutory definition in "the long-standing tradition of restraint by federal courts from interference with traditional functions of state governments." Id., at 134. The court concluded that, even if the probation condition was a debt subject to bankruptcy jurisdiction, it was non-dischargeable under § 523(a)(7) of the Code. That subsection provides that a discharge in bankruptcy does not affect any debt that "is for a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit, and is not compensation for actual pecuniary loss."

The court also concluded that the purpose of the restitution condition was "to promote the rehabilitation of the offender, not to compensate the victim." 42 B. R., at 137. It specifically rejected the argument that the restitution must be deemed compensatory because the amount precisely matched the victim's loss. It noted that the state statute allows an offender to "make restitution of the fruits of his offense or make restitution, in an amount he can afford to pay or provide in a suitable manner, for the loss or damage caused thereby," Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-30(a)(4) (1985). In its view, the Connecticut statute focuses "upon the offender and not on the victim, and . . . restitution is part of the criminal penalty rather than compensation for a victim's actual loss." 42 B. R., at 137. Thus, the Bankruptcy Court held that the bankruptcy discharge had not affected the conditions of Pellegrino's probation. The United States District Court for

[ 479 U.S. Page 42]

     the District of Connecticut adopted the Bankruptcy Court's proposed dispositions of Pellegrino and this case without alteration.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. In re Robinson, 776 F.2d 30 (1985). It first examined the Code's definition of debt. Although it recognized that most courts had reached the opposite conclusion, the court decided that a restitution obligation imposed as a condition of probation is a debt. It relied on the legislative history of the Code that evinced Congress' intent to broaden the definition of "debt" from the much narrower definition of the Bankruptcy Act of 1898. The court also noted that anomalies might result from a conclusion that such an obligation is not a debt. Most importantly, nondebt status would deprive a State of the opportunity to participate in the distribution of the debtor's estate.

Having concluded that restitution obligations are debts, the court turned to the question of dischargeability. The court stated that the appropriate Connecticut agency probably could have avoided discharge of the debt if it had objected under §§ 523(a)(2) or 523(a)(4) of the Code.*fn3 As no objections to discharge were filed, the court concluded that the State could rely only on § 523(a)(7), the subsection that provides for automatic nondischargeability for certain debts.*fn4

[ 479 U.S. Page 43]

     The court then looked to the text of the Connecticut statute to determine whether Robinson's probation condition was "compensation for actual pecuniary loss" within the meaning of § 523(a)(7). But where the Bankruptcy Court had considered the entire state probation system, the Court of Appeals focused only on the language that allows a restitution order to be assessed "for the loss or damage caused [by the crime]," Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-30(a)(4) (1985). The court thought this language compelled the conclusion that the probation condition was "compensation for actual pecuniary loss." It held, therefore, that this particular condition of Robinson's probation was not protected from discharge by § 523(a)(7). Accordingly, it reversed the District Court.

We granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari. 475 U.S. 1009 (1986). We have jurisdiction to review the judgment of the Court of Appeals under 28 U. S. C. § 1254(1). We reverse.


The Court of Appeals' decision focused primarily on the language of §§ 101 and 523 of the Code. Of course, the "starting point in every case involving construction of a statute is the language itself." Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores, 421 U.S. 723, 756 (1975) (POWELL, J., concurring). But the text is only the starting point. As JUSTICE O'CONNOR explained last Term: "'"In expounding a statute, we must not be guided by a single sentence or member of a sentence, but look to the provisions of the whole law, and to its object and policy."'" Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, 477 U.S. 207, 221 (1986) (quoting Mastro Plastics Corp. v. NLRB, 3 ...

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