Call it "scared straight" for bad check writers: a holistic approach delivered with a barking threat of legal action to get and keep their finances in order.
The York County District Attorney's Bad Check Restitution Program has been in operation since June 2007. More than $267,225 in restitution has been returned to area merchants because of it.
And more than 800 defendants have avoided a bad check charge on their records by making good on their bounced checks and paying for a financial accountability class that makes the program no cost to the county.
But one Spring Grove man got steamed when he learned the letter threatening him with prosecution if he did not enter the program was not mailed from the district attorney's office -- as the letterhead makes it appear -- but rather from a California-based debt collection company contracted by the district attorney.
Although he took the class last month with 20-some other check bouncers to spare himself a criminal record, Kevin Humes said the intimidation that forced him into the class was intentionally misleading.
He might have a point in that the district attorney doesn't prosecute everyone who gets a letter and refuses to enter the program. Local court records show only slightly more than of half of the check writers referred for prosecution by the company were prosecuted.
"No one there was trying to buy a flat screen TV," Humes said of those in his class who bounced checks. "These people were buying groceries, buying medicine. They are the last people who should be (threatened) into paying (for the class) under the DA's wing.
"People who are broke and don't have (the money) to take the class shouldn't be threatened with arrest. I'm paying money to a private company with the DA's approval."
County also turns a profit
Contracted by the district attorney's office, CorrectiveSolutions informs the check writer that he or she must make complete restitution, pay an administrative fee and attend a financial accountability class at his or her own expense of $165 or more or face prosecution.
The company has no legal authority to file criminal charges. Instead, it refers misdemeanor bad check charges to the district attorney's office, recommending prosecution, and refers summary charges back to the victim, recommending the filing of a private complaint with the appropriate district court.
From those who comply with the letter, CorrectiveSolutions reimburses the merchant, gives the county a cut of the $50 administrative fee and turns a profit, said Linda Greener, regional vice president for the company.
In 2009, the program put more than $15,000 into the county's general fund. Since April, the county has cashed almost $5,000 in revenue checks from the company.
The other option, District Attorney Tom Kearney said, is for the county to foot the bill to prosecute small bad check cases in court.
The first notice people received from CorrectiveSolutions under the York County District Attorney's letterhead blared "OFFICIAL NOTICE -- IMMEDIATE ATTENTION REQUIRED."
According to the DA's bad check program manual, if that letter goes ignored, follow-up notices are sent out on scheduled basis threatening "WARNING OF CRIMINAL CHARGES," "NOTICE OF FAILURE TO COMPLY" and "FINAL NOTICE: INITIATING PROSECUTION REVIEW."
And that's all fine with Kearney. The bad check program was instituted by his predecessor, Stan Rebert. Kearney renewed the contract with the collection company when he took office in January. He said that, while CorrectiveSolutions does the chore of contacting the check writers and collecting on the debt, it is his office that sets the program's guidelines and requirements.
The wording of the threatening letters have been personally OK'd by him.
"My choices are: immediate prosecution since the legislature has made this a crime; ignore it, which I've taken an oath not to do; or provide a program, for which I don't have the funds or ability to do, that allows them not to have a criminal record," Kearney said.
"It's a way to avoid a prosecution even starting. You bounce a check, it seems to me you have an obligation to go clean it up. Sometimes it's confusion or poor money management. But we bend over backwards to say, 'Correct that problem. Learn to manage your money.'"
Kearney said he will wait a year and then analyze the program's effectiveness.
The upside of the agreement with the collection company is that it comes at no cost to the county or taxpayers. The class fee allows the company to perform debt collection services without charging the county.
"It's a way of not spending money out of (the district attorney's budget or) the taxpayers' pockets while addressing a serious concern," Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim Barker said.
Managing finances and ... stress?
The other thing that irked Humes, who had bounced a $100 check to his dentist, was that during the class, things got "a little heavy with California spiritual stuff."
The workbook Humes was provided, "Checks and Balances, a program for getting your checkbook and your life back in balance," included the obvious: how to manage a checkbook and finances.
It also included a stress test and a personality test.
"I bounced a check," said Humes, who has no criminal record. "I know that. But what the . . . is this? Do I get mad if the guy in front of me is driving too slow? What's that got to do with a bad check?"
Greener, the company representative, said the bad checks program includes "community accountability" along with financial accountability.
"The program tries to show you your characteristics and traits," she said. "We're hoping that light bulb goes off to the fact you have a tendency to do certain things. It's just to make them aware of the things they are doing day to day.
"It's recognizing your behavior and what kind of effects it has on your community."
A background check of the check writers who have been referred by CorrectiveSolutions for prosecution revealed that the majority have some other minor criminal charges ranging from being parents of truant students, not confining their dogs to their premises, failing to remove snow from their sidewalk, disorderly conduct, harassment and lots and lots of traffic violations.
Is it working?
In 2009, CorrectiveSolutions referred 164 bad check writers to the district attorney's office for prosecution or advised the victim to file a private complaint before a district judge.
Just more than 53 percent were charged, according to records provided by the district attorney's office. Of the remaining uncharged 77 bad check cases, the majority required the merchant to file a private complaint.
Barker said that, in some instances, faulty, incomplete documents or failure to follow the legal requirements resulted in no charges being filed. He said merchants also have the option of following through or not.
Rebert said he found a lot of merchants don't follow up with filing private complaints.
"They don't want the hassle, and in some instances, you don't have good cases" for prosecution, Rebert said.
In some cases, Barker surmised, the check writer went back to the merchant and made good on the debt.
From January 1 to April 30 this year, CorrectiveSolutions referred 48 bad check matters to the district attorney's office and the victim merchants. To date, criminal charges have been filed in 23 cases. In some instances, records show, it might be several months after a referral before charges are filed.
"If you are a police jurisdiction that has a lot of businesses -- Springettsbury Township, Hanover borough, the Pennsylvania State Police in the Shrewsbury area -- it's a significant (police) resource (used) on bad check crimes," Barker said.
"If you flood a couple of those departments with bad check complaints, you divert those resources from crime investigation to matters that have alternate resolutions."
Springettsbury Township Police Chief David Eshbach, whose jurisdiction covers the Springettsbury Township Walmart, the York Galleria and hundreds of small businesses, said the bad check program has alleviated the workload on his officers.
President District Judge Ronald Haskell and District Judge James Miner said the program has had a noticeable effect of fewer summary check complaints coming into their offices.
"At the time, I thought it was more expedient, more efficient and better for the merchants," Rebert said. "I saw it as a quick way to get restitution for the merchants.
"You can hold off prosecution until you have no other options, and then you better have a good case. I thought it was a good private-public partnership."
Barker said most of the check cases now referred to CorrectiveSolutions would have, in the past, been resolved by restitution, fines, probation or Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, a pre-trial diversionary program.
"It's like ARD, just pre-arrest, not post-arrest," he said.
Kearney, Barker and Greener said the restitution program gives check writers repeated opportunities to avoid legal prosecution.
By the time CorrectiveSolutions refers a bad check case back to the district attorney's office or to the merchant to file a private complaint in district court, a check writer could have received as many as six notices: at least one from the merchant, one from the bank and four from CorrectiveSolutions.
"We're really trying to pursue rehabilitation," Barker said. "The program is not meant to over-criminalize. It's meant to help people straighten out their finances."
About the program
What: York County District Attorney's Bad Check Restitution Program
How it works: York County merchants can report bad checks of less than $2,500 to CorrectiveSolutions, a debt collection company. Complaints more than that amount go to the police and then the district attorney.
The result: By participating in the bad check program, a bad-check writer can avoid criminal charges and a criminal record. The merchant collects restitution for the bad check.
If prosecuted: Bad checks less than $200 are a summary offense punishable by fines up to $300 and court costs. Rubber checks more than $200 are misdemeanor offenses punishable by up to two years in prison, a $5,000 fine and court costs.
More information: See eligibility criteria, how to file a bad check report and other information at the York County District Attorney website at www.yorkda.com.