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Restitution payments scant in most Pennsylvania counties

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 6:02 p.m.

Each year, Pennsylvania judges order criminals to pay millions in restitution.

The problem is most of the money isn't collected or distributed, according to a recent report from a statewide task force that looked for ways to improve the victim restitution system.

The Tribune-Review's analysis of the report found that among 11 Western Pennsylvania counties, Indiana had the best success collecting and distributing money to victims. Of the more than $1.64 million in restitution it ordered, the county disbursed $418,704 — a collection rate of 25.52 percent. Lawrence County did the worst, and Allegheny County was toward the bottom of the list.

“Many victims suffer emotional, financial, spiritual and physical damage,” said Pennsylvania's Victim Advocate Carol Lavery, who chaired the 39-member task force that came up with 47 recommendations for maximizing the reimbursement of financial losses to crime victims.

“On top of all they've been through, they become frustrated by a system in which the person who committed the crime against them is ordered to pay restitution but the victim isn't getting it and can't figure out why,” Lavery said.

During the study period — 2010 through November 2012 — Pennsylvania ordered defendants to pay more than $434 million in restitution, according to the report. However, victims ended up with only about $50 million — a collection rate of 11.52 percent statewide.

Randy Degenkolb, Indiana County's clerk of courts, believes the county's higher-than-average restitution collection rate is no accident.

“I think we're very much tuned to victim advocacy in this courthouse,” said Degenkolb, who is responsible for issuing restitution payments.

At 6.82 percent, Lawrence County did the poorest job regionally of getting criminals to pay, taking in just $297,893 of the nearly $4.37 million in restitution judges ordered.

Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto believes his county's low rate is, in part, the result of several large restitution orders the past several years that will take time to collect.

“Many defendants are also in jail, so they aren't working and can't make payments,” he said. “And even when they do get out, they have a criminal conviction on their record that means that if they can get a job, it will probably be minimum wage or very low-paying.”

To help, Lawrence County hired one full- and one part-time employee to focus on collecting restitution with plans to expand to two full-time posts.

Allegheny County, which had the highest total restitution ordered among the state's 67 counties — nearly $37.51 million — had a collection rate of 11.09 percent, just under the state average but third from the bottom in Western Pennsylvania.

The 294-page task force study's recommendations include dedicating government workers to collect, more effectively using state-issued licenses as leverage, making procedures more consistent and attaching the wages of people ordered to pay.

Steve Schell, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said while the courts believe the recommendations the task force offered “could go a long way to furthering collection of restitution,” the collection rates noted in the report do not provide a complete assessment of the rates.

“The report covered less than three years, but many defendants are on monthly payment plans that, in the case of large restitution orders, could take 10, 15 or even 20 years before they are paid in full,” he said. “That's further hampered by the fact that 33 percent of defendants are incarcerated, which further limits the ability to collect restitution.”

Schell noted his office found that collection rates increase significantly as defendants continue to pay.

“When we looked at collection rates for restitution ordered (by Common Pleas Court judges) in 2007, it's 20 percent, which we believe is more accurate because it takes into account the payment plans,” Schell said.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412 -320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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