Court works to speed up restitution

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County court officials have formed a committee to explore ways to speed collection of restitution for crime victims.

“The goal of the court is to make sure victims of crime receive restitution and as quickly as possible,” said Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan, a member of that committee, on Friday.

The group includes Court Administrator Janice Meadows; Victim-Witness Coordinator Susan Griep; Lori Haines, a court reporter; Sally Adams, director of the county’s Costs and Fines Department; and Robin Patton of the Office of the Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts.

Blair County’s concern with restitution comes as a task force from the Pennsylvania Office of the Victim Advocate released a report this past week showing that victims statewide have received only 11 percent of the court-ordered restitution imposed on defendants by the magisterial district courts and county courts in the past three years.

That report indicated that in 2010, 2011 and 2012, courts have imposed $434.9 million in restitution – while only $50.1 million has been received by the victims.

Blair County’s percentage of disbursement is about equal to the state’s, Blair having ordered $6 million in restitution over the three years while sending $932,023 to the victims.

The figures for Cambria include $6.4 million in restitution with $954,625 being disbursed over the three-year period.

The task force was chaired by Carol Lavery of the Office of the Victim Advocate but included individuals from all areas of the state’s justice system, including judges, district attorneys, the General Assembly, corrections officials and representatives from many state agencies.

The task force took into consideration the victims, the community and the offenders when making 47 recommendations, such as giving the courts power to attach wages, collecting money from inmate earnings and funds, and encouraging counties to establish contempt courts.

Blair County’s Restitution Committee and the judges are considering ways to improve the efficiency of the courts as well as the use of more subtle ways that in the long run will result in payments of restitution, fines and costs.

President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva noted that in one case, she gave a man the option of going to prison to sit out a sentence for contempt or go to a cognitive thinking class that would help him get to know himself better and to help him overcome his inability to hold a job, thereby earning money to pay what he owes.

Diane Dry, director of Blair County’s Domestic Relations Office, said she is looking to hire a job search coordinator that will help individuals find jobs so they can pay their support and other financial obligations to the county.

She is targeting the unemployed and under-employed.

The county’s Adult Parole and Probation Office is working on a plan to provide up-to-date information about individuals who may be on probation, in the county prison system or who may owe support.

That shared information among county agencies will make the entire system more efficient, Kopriva said.

“[Paying restitution and fines, costs, and support] is a complex subject,” said Kopriva.

She said a “common sense” approach to the problem must be explored. She explained how a couple who owed payments in Blair and several other counties were not able to meet their court-ordered obligations in any of the counties and repeatedly were in danger of being in contempt.

Kopriva asked the Blair County Costs and Fines Department to contact the other counties and come up with an amount the defendants could pay each month.

The two have not missed any payments since, although it is taking time to collect the money they owe.

Griep said there are reasons why recouping restitution is a slow process, often taking years. She said many of the defendants are in prison and aren’t paying on time or may not be paying at all. In some cases, the defendants have many victims to pay and have other expenses like court costs and fines.

Griep said the formation of the restitution committee is “a positive direction.

“I am definitely excited we are finally getting everybody at the table to look at this issue,” she said Friday.

She said her office can apply to the state for restitution of medical expenses but restitution for other damages has to come from defendants.

“It’s definitely a problem,” she said.

The committee will next meet on March 1.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.