Paying a ticket or a fine is never fun. But in Centre County, people are a little more likely to do it than in other Pennsylvania counties.
If you paid a traffic ticket or restitution for a criminal offense in 2015, your money went into a pot worth $464.5 million, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
In Centre County, the Court of Common Pleas collected almost $4.05 million, about 50 percent of the payments assessed by the court. That might sound low. Just 50 cents out of every dollar? But then you look at second place. The silver medal goes to Carbon County, with just 37.4 percent of its fees paid.
Adjacent Clearfield County is close to the bottom, with just 16.57 percent of its fees collected. Blair and Clinton counties come in around 31 percent. Huntingdon takes in 32 percent. Mifflin brings in 20.8 percent and Union 25.5 percent.
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Magisterial court collection rates are still high, topping 89 percent in Centre County for $3.48 million. That’s not first place in Pennsylvania, but it’s in the top five. Behind Sullivan, Fulton, neighboring Clinton and Wyoming.
Some of that stays with the county. Some gets distributed to other government bodies, such as the municipalities where the arrest took place. The chunk from any particular fine might be a few dollars, or up to six figures, like the highest fine ever collected in the state, which came out of Centre County.
“I can tell you that a significant factor is attributed to the county’s probation department,” said court administrator Kendra Miknis.
“The probation department has played a significant role regarding collections, as they are tasked with enforcing the orders of the court and therefore seeing that monetary compliance is met,” she said. “Much of the success of collections can be accredited to the concerted efforts of the probation staff and officers, and their ability to develop efficient, working relationships that have contributed to the compliance.”
Tom Young, director of Centre County Probation and Parole, said he believes that the process works as well as it does because everyone is trying to make it work.
“I think it’s a team effort. There’s a group of people that take collections very seriously, starting with the (District Attorney’s) office, then the court in imposing fines and costs,” he said.
“They appear in our office and sign a payment contract on the amount that they owe, which is part of sentencing. If they don’t agree to the payment contract they can be taken back to the judge that sentenced them. The court can then choose to vacate the sentence and impose a different sentence more restrictive. This payment contract is signed with a probation officer and it’s also signed by the judge that sentenced them. It then becomes an order of the court and that person is locked into a payment contract,” Young said.
Look through court records and you see a judgment in favor of the probation department accompanying every sentencing, sealing the obligation in no uncertain terms.
Young stresses that the process is not intended to put people in situations they can’t handle.
“One thing the court does is impose reasonable fines and cost,” he said. “They aren’t overfining people to the point that it’s uncollectable. It can just become impossible for some people.”
Centre County Chief Public Defender Dave Crowley knows that. His office deals with people who are charged with crimes but can’t afford lawyers. Naturally, the financial side of the criminal court process is something the public defenders see regularly.
“There is an unrecoupable cost of carrying through with the threat of incarcerating a person too poor to pay,” he said.
The problem, Crowley said, comes when a sentence is complete, but money is still owed.
“If he defaults in those payments, the county sends the account to a collection agency, who for a fee added to the defendant’s balance, will attempt to collect it for the county,” he said.
If the collection agency is unsuccessful, it goes back to court. The DA’s office asks a judge to find the person in contempt. They can be released, if they agree to meet their payments.
Still don’t pay? The situation escalates. There can be bench warrants. A simple traffic stop can end up with someone taken into custody. Getting home can be more complicated than just hopping a bus from the Centre County Correctional Facility to State College. Crowley says his office has gotten calls from people unexpectedly needing help getting to homes farther away.
In 2015, the Centre County commissioners decided to help, reimbursing for tickets or letting the public defenders use county transportation to get people home.
But in Centre County, the payments are being collected more often than they are in many other counties. Young says that may be because of the money at play.
“The economy is part of it,” he said. “Our clientele, our offender base is very different from Clearfield County. We have a fair number of students.”
It isn’t just about having parents who could help. Young said the county is also trying to help people with other programs with the goal of successful completion.
“We’ve ramped up our efforts,” he said. “We are seeing a lot of ARD.”
That’s accelerated rehabilitative disposition. For some crimes, like a first-time DUI, rather than being saddled with years of probation or jail time and a criminal record that is searchable for years, finish ARD and the slate gets cleaned.
There is an actual price, though.
“They have to complete fines to compete ARD. That’s a real big incentive,” Young said. “It’s an accountability thing, in my opinion.”