Clerks of court enforcing collections

February 16, 2013
Greene County Deputy Clerk of Courts Janice Lahew, left, and Clerk of Courts Sherry Main Wise look over a book containing collection information for more than $6 million owed in court ordered restitution, fees and fines. - Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

WAYNESBURG – Last summer, the Greene County clerk of courts started a successful drive to collect more than $6 million in fees, fines and restitution owed by defendants.

The drive began months ahead of a task force report issued last week that found more than $780 million in unpaid restitution in Pennsylvania and said the state needs to be more aggressive in collecting what is owed by criminals. The report listed 47 ways to improve restitution collection, including garnisheeing paychecks and suspending state-issued licenses. Restitution is money owed to crime victims to reimburse them for their loss.

Of the $6 million owed in Greene County, not all of it is in arrears, according to Clerk of Courts Sherry Main Wise, but a large percentage of it is. There is still a long way to go to collect such a large sum, but the new system of collecting it is working quite well, according to Deputy Clerk of Courts Janice Lahew.

When Wise served as deputy clerk, she was aware of the problem of getting people to pay this court-ordered money. It made her angry, but there were not enough hours in the day to address it. Lahew felt the same frustration over the uncollected funds when she became deputy. Working together, the pair did some reorganizing that permitted Lahew the time to formulate a plan to get people to pay.

In June, they put that plan into action, sending out dunning letters to defendents who were 90 days behind in paying. Delinquent payers receive four letters. Once they have received the fourth letter, sent by registered mail, they must either pay up or face a judge and risk being held in contempt of court. Those who let it get to that point could receive up to 90 days in jail and an additional fine of $1,000. Wage garnishment also is possible. If a case is driving-related, a license suspension is another option Wise will pursue, if necessary.

The first group who have chosen to ignore the letters are scheduled to face the court March 15.

“Most people make modest payments because they can’t afford larger payments,” said Washington County Clerk of Courts Barbara Gibbs, whose office has used three collection agencies for the past 10 years in an effort to recover restitution owed, and also has two employees working on collections. “It’s just another pair of hands you use to collect the money,” she said. “You should try to get the blood from the turnip, and we do try that.”

Figures provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts show that $5.3 million in restitution was assessed against defendants from 2010 to 2012 in Washington County and $2.4 million in Greene County. Washington County collected $1.2 million and Greene County $428,000 during that same period. The total restitution owed in Washington County for cases from 1999 to 2012 is $12.5 million and the office has collected almost $5.4 million during that period, according to Gibbs’ figures.

“Washington County and Greene County are doing pretty well” in collecting restitution, said Steve Schell, AOPC spokesman. “They are above the statewide average for collecting restitution,” which is 11 percent.

Schell noted the collection rate is affected by several factors, including that 33 percent of those assessed are incarcerated and therefore have no way to pay restitution. “Also, many defendants are on monthly payment plans to settle court-ordered financial sanctions over a period of many years. Large court penalties, particularly large restitution assessments, for example, may not be paid in full for 10, 15 or 20 years,” he said.

For example, in Washington County Court, the district attorney’s office last year asked to modify a restitution order for a woman who pleaded guilty to stealing $440,000 from her employer, but was paying just $50 a month in restitution. At that rate it would take her more than 700 years to repay the money. Her payment was raised to $500 a month, but it will still take more than 50 years to repay the full amount.

Judges can, and in a few cases do, jail defendants who are in arrears in paying money due their victims, but Gibbs said relatives or significant others typically make enough of a payment to get the person out of jail, and the cycle begins anew.

Lahew said the letters have been a great motivator.

“We try to get restitution up front, because I feel the victim needs to be paid first,” Wise said. She applies all payments to restitution until the victim is compensated, and then to fines and court fees.

There are one or two people who have asked to have their restitution, costs and fines to be taken from their paychecks, Wise said, noting that not everyone who owes the money tries to avoid payment.

Garnisheeing wages might seem like an obvious route to follow, but Gibbs, clerk of courts since 1984, has found that employers don’t necessarily want to go through the paperwork required for attaching wages. Even if pay is being garnisheed, the defendant may hope to elude detection if he or she changes jobs or works at an undocumented job. Or, if a defendant is out of work, he or she is unlikely to pay restitution owed.

And one convicted criminal may have victimized a host of people.

“We don’t have debtors’ prisons,” Gibbs said.

Clerks of court used to be able to seize cash posted as bail until an appellate court overruled the procedure, she added.

Gibbs supports the findings of the task force reports, but many of the proposals would require action by the Legislature or Supreme Court. She likes the idea of the Internal Revenue Service getting involved to collect restitution from those who owe.

“That would go a long way,” she said. “But how many of the defendants pay taxes?”

Her office has gone so far as to file claims with the estates of deceased defendants, and also has tried to extract restitution if a defendant’s real estate is sold for back taxes.

Suspending driving privileges of those who owe restitution may work for some defendants, but Gibbs said, “They drive without their license.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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