The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
May 27, 2011
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille has informed Governor Tom Corbett and the legislature that the Pennsylvania courts need an additional $71 million next year. Chief Justice Castille said in a statement, “If we cannot pay judges and fund court operations ... those who depend on the judiciary for resolution of issues in civil, family and problem-solving courts may soon face this crisis as well.”
With the state anticipating a $4 billion deficit, can the court system generate its own revenue? Sure, the courts can generate an enormous amount of revenue -- they just have a difficult time collecting.
In Allegheny County alone there is $41 million in uncollected court costs and fees, and another $15 million in uncollected fines. The seven surrounding counties -- Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland—are owed $58.6 million in costs and $24 million in fines. Across the state there is a whopping $1.6 billion in uncollected costs and fines.
Pursuant to 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3571(a) those fines and cost all go into government coffers.
The court’s traditional method of collecting costs and fines has been to revoke or extend the county probation of a nonpaying offender. This is a self-defeating proposition. For instance, an offender owes $1,000 in fines and costs and does not pay. As a result, she is locked up for thirty days at a cost of $40 a day. The cost of incarceration ends up $200 more than what is owed in costs and fines.
State Senator Mike Stack has a different idea for collecting fines and costs. He has introduced Senate Bill 836, which would require individuals to pay all outstanding fines and costs owed to the Court of Common Pleas before they can have their car registration renewed. Once an individual pays their fines, surcharges, fees, or penalties, the court would provide PennDOT with authorization to renew the offenders’s vehicle registration.
Senator Stack’s proposal, while not without merit, has some drawbacks. The penalty for driving without registration is merely a summary offense punishable by a fine. Revoking a nonpayer’s registration does not make their vehicle inoperable. Judging by the amount of unpaid fines and costs this bill will affect a lot of people. It may force some to drive without auto registration and ultimately without insurance, and create a host of new problems for law-abiding citizens while creating a whole new class of offenders.
Certainly there are situations where an offender simply cannot afford to pay fines and costs. However, employed offenders can, yet in Pennsylvania there is no wage attachment except for unpaid taxes and child support.
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