York Clerk of Courts collections drop in 2016
York County saw a drop in yearly collections of costs, fines and restitution for the first time since 2011.
The county's Clerk of Courts Office collected about $11 million in 2016, which is about $655,000 less than the amount collected in 2015.
The drop — which Clerk of Courts Don O'Shell blamed mostly on stricter access into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD, program — bucks recent trends, as total collections had increased by more than $500,000 from 2014 to 2015 and more than $650,000 between 2013 and 2014.
ARD allows first-time, nonviolent offenders to avoid conviction by instead completing a set of court-ordered requirements that can include community service and restitution.
O'Shell said those accepted into ARD, which is determined by the York County District Attorney's Office, typically pay more quickly than average defendants, which adds a yearly "surge" to the office's collections.
York County District Attorney Tom Kearney has said ARD is intended for "low-risk, low-need" defendants, and people convicted of certain offenses, including domestic violence, animal abuse and sex offenders, don't qualify for the program.
County's collector: The Clerk of Courts office is the county's primary collector of costs, fines and restitution, and O'Shell explained that his staff is responsible for adding revenue to the Sheriff's office, the District Attorney's office and various local courts.
"If you cut us, you reduce all that revenue," he said.
O'Shell's eight staff members are evenly split into two units: a traditional costs and fines unit, which is responsible for assessing and receiving what people owe, and a collections enforcement unit, he said.
Those two units are currently responsible for collecting more than $90.5 million in outstanding costs and fines — which includes money owed to the county, state, municipalities and prothonotary — and nearly $42.5 million in restitution, according to the department's most recent Accounts Receivable report.
A breakdown of the 2,255-page public report reveals that at least 68 people owe more than $100,000 through the Clerk of Courts office, and people still owe money from court cases settled as far back as 1975.
Tackling such a large number of cases was daunting when O'Shell took over the position in 2007, he admitted, but the first course of action was to try to get all those who owed money on a monthly payment plan.
Monthly payments are court-ordered and vary depending on multiple factors, including the amount owed and a person's job status, but O'Shell said most are ordered to pay about $350 to $400 per month.
Collection methods: When people start missing monthly payments, that's where the collections enforcement unit comes into play.
The unit will first determine if the the money owed is from a driving-related offense, O'Shell said, because that would allow his department to suspend the person's driver's license through the state Department of Transportation until the offender has caught up with his or her payments.
The license can be re-suspended if they fall behind on their payments again, but a second suspension will only be lifted once the amount owed is paid off in full, O'Shell said.
O'Shell said the license suspensions are probably the most effective way for his department to collect overdue fines, and he wishes state law would be opened up to allow for the method to be used regardless of whether an offense was driving-related.
"People tend to respond quickly, because that's threatening their driving privileges, and sometimes their employment is on the line," he said.
Another collections method is sending overdue notices.
Sarah Morin, a collections manager for the office, said her unit will typically send three overdue notices at most and fewer if it's determined that the person lives out of state. The office sent more than 40,000 overdue notices in 2016, according to O'Shell.
If the office receives no response, Morin said her unit will "stop burning taxpayer resources" and instead refer the debt to one of two collections agencies.
Morin noted that it behooves people to pay the county directly because the collection agencies, as allowed under state law, charge a 25 percent fee that is in addition to the amount originally owed.
For example, if someone owes the county $100 but fails to pay in a timely manner and gets referred to an agency, that person would then owe $125, with $25 paid to the agency.
York County's Clerk of Courts Office exclusively uses Pittsburgh-based Credit Management Co. and Credit Bureau of York, which they started working with in 2012.
The agencies will notify the county if they determine someone who owes money is deceased, at which point the money owed is zeroed out, O'Shell said.
If the person who died owed restitution, the office notifies the crime victim, who can seek restitution through the prothonotary's office, but Morin said fines don't move on to family members.
Each agency has its advantages, O'Shell said, as Credit Management Co. uses algorithms to determine who is more likely to pay, while Credit Bureau of York has a stronger base of local information from collecting for local companies including Shipley Energy and York Water Co.
Each collected about $475,000 for the department during 2016, according to year-end data.
O'Shell said he prefers Credit Bureau of York's approach because it treats every case similarly, but he lauded Credit Management Co.'s proven results.
Restitution: Under state law, O'Shell said his department treats every case similarly regardless of the amount owed or where the money is supposed to go.
If someone owes money to a public agency, such as the county, and a crime victim, state law requires O'Shell's office to allocate 50 percent of all money collected toward victim restitution until it is fully paid.
The amount paid will often be 100 percent allocated to restitution if a case reached cost contempt court, O'Shell added, because that step would mean the crime victim has been waiting years at that point.
Filing cost contempt petitions in court is his office's "hammer," O'Shell said, because it is the last tool at their disposal if the collections agencies are unsuccessful.
"It's not a huge (financial) generator," O'Shell admitted of the cost contempt court, "but if you don't have the hammer, all other efforts fall by the wayside."
In court, a judge can increase or decrease the defendant's costs, send them on job searches or grant them an exchange for community service, Morin said.
Every hour of community service counts as $8 toward court costs, according to Georgine Stauffer, the office's chief deputy, but cannot be used toward restitution.
Morin pointed out that the community service has to be done with an approved organization and recalled a time when a woman tried to turn in community service hours from a fictitious bingo hall in Harrisburg.
Note: The York County Clerk of Courts Office's reported collection totals will appear higher than as listed in this article because the office includes money allocated to collection agencies, which The York Dispatch elected to leave out because that money does not impact the total owed through the office.