Thursday, March 1, 2012

Court Collections Strong Despite Fewer Case Filings New Technology Supports Aggressive Local Efforts

Despite fewer case filings in 2011, financial collections by Pennsylvania’s courts remained at a high level, totaling nearly $470 million, according to reports released today by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

“I applaud the aggressive efforts of many local officials to collect the fines, costs and restitution ordered by the court,” said Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald D. Castille.

Nearly $211 million, or 45 percent of the total collected, was distributed to the state; nearly $164 million, or 35 percent, to counties; $54 million, or 11 percent, to municipalities; and $36 million, or 7.7 percent, was paid to crime victims for restitution.  Four million dollars was paid to entities such as schools, libraries and tax agencies. (See Statewide Court Disbursement Table) 

The court disbursements include court fees, fines, costs and restitution collected by the more than 540 magisterial district courts and the criminal divisions of the 67 county Courts of Common Pleas and Philadelphia Municipal Court.  They exclude payments for civil cases processed by Pennsylvania’s Common Pleas courts and the Philadelphia Traffic Court, for which integrated statewide case management systems do not exist.

Over the last five years, the total number of cases filed in magisterial district and Common Pleas criminal courts dropped seven percent, while court collections have increased five percent.  Approximately half of the decline was due to a significant drop in the number of traffic citations issued throughout the Commonwealth. (See County Disbursement and Case Filings Tables)

“County officials are effectively using a variety of methods to improve collections,” Chief Justice Castille said.  “These methods include the use of outside collection agencies and automated tools built into the judiciary’s criminal case management systems, including providing information to PennDOT for suspension of driver’s licenses of defendants failing to pay court costs related to traffic violations. 

“In addition,” he said, “the judiciary’s new ‘e-Pay’ application, allowing defendants to make payments via the Internet with a debit or credit card, appears to be contributing to higher court collection levels.” 

The e-Pay payment application was installed by the state judiciary in all Common Pleas criminal courts in 2010, and by the end of 2011, it was available in all magisterial district courts in Pennsylvania.  Unlike credit/debit card payment functions that may exist in some counties, the statewide e-Pay function is online, and it is fully integrated with both the judiciary’s magisterial and Common Pleas criminal court systems.  Users, therefore, have a “one-stop shop” for court payments with the ability to search for and locate cases with balances due across courts and counties.  Multiple court payments can be made with a single transaction fee of only $2.75.

E-pay is increasingly becoming the method of choice for defendants paying court costs. By 2012 court collections through e-Pay climbed to a daily average of more than $130,000.

“By providing an easy way to settle these court-ordered costs, defendants can avoid facing arrests, contempt of court proceedings, driver’s license suspensions and/or additional collection agencies fees,” Chief Justice Castille said.

“The state’s Common Pleas Case Management System makes our collections enforcement efforts possible and effective,” said York County Clerk of Courts Don O’Shell.  “The system makes it easy for our staff to process driver’s license suspensions.  In 2011 we suspended the driver’s licenses of 716 defendants for failing to pay costs and fines related to traffic offenses, and restored 408 driver’s licenses for payment plan compliance.  These efforts resulted in the collection of more than $210,000 in initial payments alone.” 

In addition, O’Shell said, “The system automatically prepared thousands of delinquency notices for delivery to defendants, and with a click of a mouse, we were able to refer 6,499 cases to York County’s third-party collections vendor, who receives related case financial information electronically from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

“The system also facilitates the filing of civil judgments with the prothonotary’s office as required by law,” O’Shell said.  “Last year we filed 3,318 judgments and satisfied 610 liens, resulting in the collection of more than $507,000 in final payments on criminal cases that were originally assessed at $1,000 or more.

In September Allegheny County officials began a four-month, penalty-free program that allowed offenders who were convicted before 2005 to begin paying overdue fines, fees and restitution without commissions which can be up to 25 percent of each payment. 

Kate Barkman, Director of the county’s Department of Court Records, said, “The program resulted in the collection of approximately $100,000 by the end of December and additional payments of approximately $50,000 in 2012.”

Like other counties, Cumberland County is working to improve and streamline the process of collecting court-related debts.  The county’s Chief Adult Probation Officer, Lyle M. Herr, said, “We published a list of 50 offenders who had active bench warrants for being behind on their payments.  We also started holding probation office hearings designed to bring the offender back into compliance with their payment plan or face a formal hearing in front of their sentencing judge with a recommendation from our office that their probation or parole be revoked and that they be committed to the Cumberland County Prison.

“These efforts have contributed to the collection and disbursement of more than $4.5 million in Common Pleas court debts last year, an 18 percent increase over the last five years.”

Money collected by Pennsylvania criminal courts funds numerous local and state government programs.  Most court collections distributed to the Commonwealth are deposited into specific funds, such as the state’s motor vehicle fund.

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