By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Christine Horner remembers — 5:23 p.m. on Thursday, May 23, 2006. She was driving on a main road in Chester County, in a brand-new SUV she bought a few months before.
Another car was coming off a side road. The driver later claimed he didn’t see her.
Horner’s car smashed into a tree, the front crushed. She was trapped, unable to move.
The other driver, a repeat criminal offender, was drunk.
Horner spent 15 days in the hospital, though it would be nine months before she would work again. The bones in her right ankle were practically “obliterated,” repaired through several skin-stretching and bone-to-bone fusion surgeries. Her pelvis and clavicle were fractured.
Doctors said it would take Horner, then 34, six months before she could walk again. It took three.
“Don’t make me angry,” she said, attributing her quick recovery to determination.
Horner’s right leg is shorter than the other, and she spends about $500 on orthotics to walk properly.
“He had no choice but to plead guilty,” Horner said of the other driver. “They caught him running from the scene.”
The judge ordered $25,677 in restitution as part of the sentence, issued because of the at-home care Horner received during her recovery. Horner said she has gotten $20.
Horner’s story – and countless others across the state – are familiar to people in the justice system. In Pennsylvania, criminal offenders owe more than $2 billion in fees, fines and restitution.
“For me, it’s not all about the money, but the bottom line is I do feel that he should pay,” Horner said. “So it comes down to principle.”
The final report from the Restitution in Pennsylvania Task Force, dated February 2013, cited more than $2.2 billion owed by criminal offenders — restitution to victims, court fees, fines and server fees gone unpaid.
The report gives nearly 50 recommendations on ways the system can do a better job collecting and disbursing this money.
Carol Lavery of the state Office of the Victim Advocate, chaired the committee, which included dozens of justice workers, legislative staff, corrections officials and victim rights groups.
She said the report addresses long-acknowledged issues regarding offender payments.
“People do lose business because of medical expenses, or they aren’t able to work … . (They) lose a great deal because of the cumulative effects of a crime,” Lavery said. “Our general public policy is the burden of repayment of that should fall on the offender, and not the victim or the community.”
In a three-year period ending in 2012, of about $434 million county courts assessed in restitution about $50 million was disbursed to the victims.
Some recommendations deal directly with how money is collected from an offender, including taking overdue payments from wages, tax refunds or lottery winnings, all of which would require legislative approval. Another recommendation would increase the amount jails and prisons can take from an inmate’s account and put toward restitution, court fees and fines.
Another recommendation would create an order for any cash bail to be applied to restitution, court costs or fines imposed.
Lavery said problems with unpaid restitution go beyond whether an offender has an ability to pay. It also involves the ways courts, at the state and county levels, collect and disperse these payments.
The report recommends counties remit restitution information to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to take advantage of a state law for driver’s license suspension.
“There isn’t one thing we can point to and say this is what will fix it,” Lavery said.
Many recommendations are policy changes that would happen at the court clerk level. Some victims fail to keep in touch with the courts after a crime and, if they move, a county may be unable to track them down to give them their payment.
An offender may also lie about their income, but if counties cross-checked this information with other databases they may be able to better assess what the offender can pay.
“It is likely to lead to increased revenues in the counties,” she said. “It won’t just increase restitution, it would likely increase costs and fees and fines.”
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts calculates the data. Lavery said that’s a relatively new function, but it gave the task force a baseline for its recommendations.
“How do you a fix problem when you have absolutely no idea what the numbers are about?” Lavery said.
Of the $2.2 billion outstanding dollars owed, criminal offenders owe $780 million in restitution.
Some of those individual amounts could be as high as $400,000 or $500,000, Lavery said.
More than $1 billion is owed to the court system, including includes fees for getting set up with electric-monitoring devices such as ankle bracelets; many courts require offenders to pay for these, or a monthly fee for parole supervision.
The state is missing out on nearly $402 million in punitive fines, and an additional $11 million is owed in server fees, which are owed to sheriffs or constables for delivering court orders.
Mark Bergstrom is the executive director for the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, who served on the task force. He said the process of collecting unpaid restitution is “a balancing act” between making the victim whole and what the offender is able to pay.
Bergstrom said he supports looking at higher thresholds to withdraw from inmate’s accounts, but asked people to remember the purpose of things such as work-release programs.
“If we don’t keep that in mind, it might hit a point at which even though he’s on work release, he can no longer support his family and that has sort of collateral consequences,” he said.
Most offenders wind up on a monthly payment plan for restitution and court fees. Few could hand over the thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – associated with the cost of a guilty verdict.
Bergstrom said repeat offenders might owe restitution to five victims and have spent enough time in jail that they have little money to hand over.
“You have a lot of victims standing in line hoping and waiting for some compensation, so it’s very difficult,” he said.
Horner is encouraged by the report’s recommendations and hopes to see it move forward, but she hasn’t forgotten the surgeries, the months of rehabilitation, or the image of the front of her car smashed up against a tree.
“With each year that comes I have different goals I’ve tried to reach,” she said. “But forgiveness has not been one of them.”
Daniels can be reached at Melissa@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.