York County Clerk of Courts race: Simplifying costs, fines easier said than done
In his initial pitch to voters, Dan Byrnes said he wanted to overhaul the York County Clerk of Courts Office with a new system to allow defendants to pay their costs and fines as soon as they leave the courtroom.
But court clerks in all 67 Pennsylvania counties must use the same system, according to state and local officials — and leaving it isn't an option.
Told York County couldn't simply strike out on its own, Byrnes suggested changes could be made to current method, called the Common Pleas Case Management System (CPCMS)
The CPCMS is inefficient, he said, and there are systems "being used now in other states" that allow defendants to pay cost and fines immediately.
What does the clerk do? Byrnes is one of three people seeking the Republican nomination for York County Clerk of a Courts in the May 21 primary. A Democrat is running unopposed.
The Clerk of Courts Office is responsible for maintaining criminal records from the York County Court of Common Pleas and for collecting fines, costs and restitution from criminal defendants.
The office also handles and files a host of other records, including juvenile court records, financial statements from municipalities, bonds filed by tax collectors and constables, emancipations and expungements.
How it works now: It takes an average of three to four weeks for a defendant in York County to receive a breakdown of the total amount they owe, said Georgine Keiser, the acting clerk of courts who is not among the candidates for the permanent position.
The CPCMS does tally the total amount a defendant owes, but Keiser said clerks have to enter the information manually after calculating other fees — such as supervision costs from adult probation, subpoena costs from the sheriff's department and administrative costs from the courts — in addition to fines.
And with six criminal division judges each handling as many as 40 cases per day, it takes time for the clerks to compile everything.
On balance, Keiser said the York County office currently operates very efficiently, adding that they're trying to promote mobile payments via phone and running a pilot program for a payment kiosk at the York County Judicial Center at no cost to the county.
Barbato Arvonio, another Republican candidate and a former clerk in the office, would like to expand the pilot program and place payment kiosks in district court offices around the county, which he said would increase accessibility for those outside the city.
A new standard? At a debate hosted by the Republican Club of York County, Byrnes said the problem is not with the people in the Clerk of Courts Office but rather with the system.
"You have this staff in there that's working so incredibly hard, but they have to waste some of their time calculating costs, inserting that into a form letter, printing that letter, folding that letter, mailing that letter — that's not an efficient system," he said.
York County could be an innovator and set a new statewide standard for the Clerk of Courts Office, Byrnes said.
Safety risk: However, every county in the commonwealth uses CPCMS, and participation is not optional.
If York or any other county were to strike out on its own and leave the CPCMS, public safety would be at risk, said Kimberly Bathgate, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
"Local court officials are able to access court case information about parties related to cases anywhere in the state," she said.
If some counties were to opt out, there could be dangerous lapses in communication between the courts and law enforcement about sex offender violations, Megan’s Law reporting, arrest warrants and driver’s license suspensions, Bathgate said.
Even without leaving the statewide system, Byrnes said later, the clerk of courts has the authority to collaborate with other counties to make changes at the state level.
One update he'd like to see is automated calculation of court costs, fines and restitution for a large percentage of cases and for those calculations to be immediately available to defendants and clerks.
Opponents weigh in: Arvonio said he'd be all for an automated system that could calculate costs immediately.
But as of now, he said it's an issue of feasibility. Even if the state were to get involved and make changes, it can take a while for other departments within the county's criminal justice system to calculate a defendant's costs.
And fewer than 1 percent of defendants have the money to pay their fines and costs immediately, Arvonio added.
"I don’t know how you would do it with probation costs because that's going to be variable," he said. "If someone’s ready to pay right after court, we accept that payment. But again, they need to know that’s not going to be their final tally, most likely."
Instead of focusing on updating the systems for those already willing and able to pay, Arvonio said he wants to focus on increasing collection from defendants who are unable, or unwilling, to pay.
"I want to be focused on our crime victims and going after the people who are basically thumbing their nose to the court and not paying," he said.
For those who find themselves in court for being unable to pay because they don't have a job, Arvonio said he'd like to bring in job recruiters who can help defendants with their resumes and help them find a job that will be a good fit for their skills.
There are legitimate concerns with the time it takes to provide a defendant with a tally of their costs, said Julie Haertsch, another Republican candidate.
But Haertsch said she would need to get into office and learn more about the current procedures before making recommendations for improvement.
"I’m not ready to offer any viable solutions until I have a better grasp on what are the issues and where are they stemming from," she said.
The York County Republican Committee endorsed Haertsch ahead of the May 21 Republican primary.
Democratic candidate Stacey Duckworth, who is running uncontested in the primary, said improving efficiency is important but that overhauling the current system is not a viable solution.
"We have to work within the state-mandated system, but we can certainly find ways to improve that," Duckworth said. "That’s not beyond our realm."
Ideally, the clerk's office could place scanners in the courtrooms that would read the information on the paperwork, upload it to the case-management system and auto-populate the proper forms with the information, she said.
Even if the system weren't fully digitized as in the example above, Duckworth said adding a standard scanner to send the documents digitally back to the clerk's office from the courtroom would be helpful.
"That would still eliminate the need for manual paper-to-paper transfer to be able to upload into the computer system," she said, "even to just be able to view and transfer the document."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story improperly attributed the plan to place payment kiosks in district court offices throughout the county. That plan is part of Republican candidate Barbato Arvonio's campaign platform.