At bottom:  · The numbers
Jun 10, 2007 — Nearly twelve years ago, some guys stole Lance Knaub's 1981 Buick Skylark in the middle of the night, took it for a ride and returned it trashed and stinking of body odor.

Repairs cost $1,000. Knaub got money from some defendants, but for years, he's been demanding the $338.51 one of them, Tomas O. Sanchez, still owes.

Sanchez owes money to more than Knaub for crimes he committed beginning in late 1995, court records show.

In one incident, Sanchez and another man entered Richard and Carol Shoff's Windsor Township home while the couple slept. The Shoffs later realized a jacket, a wallet and other belongings were missing.

Sanchez pleaded guilty to being in the home - not to taking anything - but a judge ordered him to pay the Shoffs $455.57 for part of what the couple lost.

Richard Shoff said he never thought they would see the money. And they've never tried to get it back.

Knaub, Shoff and Sanchez are part of a flawed system that affects thousands in York County. Those convicted of crimes are supposed to pay their debts to society in part by paying back victims and by paying court costs and fines that fund things such as the Crime Victims Compensation Program and running the courthouse.

But a review of more than 52,000 cases in the York County court system - some of which date back as far as 1969 - shows that victims, the county and the state still are waiting for millions owed by defendants.

Almost $19 million is owed to crime victims. The total amount owed - $55 million, which continues to grow as new cases are added and collection efforts fail to keep up - is close to the cost of the new judicial center.

Officials say they aim to collect what's owed. But the challenges are daunting.

Those in prison often can't work, and when they are released, some usually find low-paying jobs that leave them struggling to support themselves or their families. Others simply don't pay, even if they can afford to.

The government could create a system to keep track of the thousands of cases and make sure defendants are paying what they owe. And those who default on their debt could be hauled in for court hearings, and a judge could send them back to prison.

But that could start the debt cycle over again, and the price to house them would fall to the taxpayers.

The plan to make criminals pay often collides with the reality of doing so, said Emilio Viano, a professor of justice, law and society at American University, as each solution comes with its own set of problems that could negate the effort to collect money.

County officials know that they will not be able to collect all $55 million, Clerk of Courts Don O'Shell said, but he thinks that at least half of that amount could be collected.

“We're still looking at a significant chunk of change,” he said.

In and out of prison

Sanchez's case is an example of some of the system's flaws.

He pleaded guilty in July 1996 to a string of thefts and burglaries, according to court records.

Judge John S. Kennedy sentenced Sanchez to 11 ½ to 23 months in prison and five years probation. He ordered Sanchez to get a job and pay restitution - at least 10 percent of his net income - when he got out of prison.

Case closed, most people would think. But in thousands of cases, that's just the start of a long journey in having defendants pay their debts to society.

Sanchez paid some court costs in the first year after his release, but then problems started.

He violated his probation in 1998, according to court records, and the judge sent him back to prison for three months.

He violated parole again in 1999, and was jailed.

He was paroled in February 2000, but a few months later, he violated parole again. An adult probation officer wrote in a July 2000 report that Sanchez failed to report in and pay court debts, among other things.

He canceled two appointments with the adult probation office, citing work conflicts and transportation problems. The office rescheduled, but Sanchez didn't show up, records show.

Sanchez did report in eventually, but canceled a subsequent appointment because he said he had to be at work. Then he failed to appear once again for a rescheduled meeting.

The judge signed a bench warrant for his arrest.

* * *

Unless prisoners are on work-release or doing odd jobs around the prison, they can't make money to repay those court costs and fines, York County Prison Warden Tom Hogan said.

So the court and the victims have to wait.

Some criminals will never pay off their bills because they'll be in prison for the rest of their lives. Take Karl Stephenson Chambers, who is serving life in prison for the murder of 70-year-old Anna Mae Morris. Chambers, who was convicted in 1987, owes nearly $13,000 and has paid $15 to date, court documents state.

Others, like Sanchez, are in and out of prison - meaning they at least have a chance to pay what they owe.

Low-paying jobs

Shoff, 60, said he wrote off ever seeing the money from Sanchez because he figured the young man would never be able to pay it back.

First he was in prison. Then he had to find a job.

Who hires people when they get out of prison? Shoff asked.

In Sanchez's case, his last known job was at a convenience store in Lancaster County, according to a 2000 parole violation report. If he was paid minimum wage, which was $5.15 an hour at the time, he would have earned $206 for a 40-hour week.

Many who pass through the court system aren't wealthy. Kyle King, administrator for the district attorney's office, said many defendants are represented by a public defender.

So there's a delicate balance between holding defendants accountable and making their payments reasonable. Court officials want to help rehabilitate people, and they don't want to set payments so high that defendants would commit another crime to pay their bills.

Someone who's making $200 a week to support the family probably can't pay $300 a month, said Al Sabol, the head of the county's adult probation department.

“The reality is the paycheck only goes so far,” he said.

But there are exceptions. A defendant who lives at home with his parents would likely be able to pay more than a father or mother raising children.

So court officials assess each case and try to set a realistic payment plan.

Some pay their debt to society

Some defendants do steadily pay back what they owe.

Through June 1, Stephanie Lee Snyder of Springettsbury Township had paid the most on the list. She had $51,774.93 left to pay of the original $188,379.55 her court records say she owed. She pleaded guilty in 1994 to stealing money from her employer to satisfy a gambling addiction.

In some cases the repayment is more complicated.

Deseree Rose of Dover Township said she wants to pay her fines and get off probation so she can spend more time with her friends.

“You don't want to be in the system for the rest of your life,” she said.

She's paid off a criminal trespassing case from four years ago, but now owes the majority of a $1,826.15 bill from a driving under the influence charge from last year. One of her recent checks was bad, she said, and she was charged a $20 fee for that.

Rose, however, disputes the amount she owes and said she has paid at least $300 to $400 of her bill. She also said she's trying to make more money so she can pay her bill.

Others say they pay only what is necessary to get by.

Sean Shaffer, 39, of York Haven said he could probably pay more than $40 a month, but he thinks the penalties for drinking and driving are “out of line for a nonviolent crime.”

Shaffer served prison time for his second DUI offense since 2000, spent time in rehabilitation, has to take DUI classes and still owes most of the $4,440.38 in court costs and fines.

But Shaffer said the punishment has cost him much more. A self-employed contractor, he said he lost $25,000 while in prison and rehabilitation.

He also had his driver's license taken away for 2 ½ years, so he now has to pay someone to drive him around.

“I could pay it off quicker, but I'm not gonna,” he said. “My life will be the same - just $40 less a month.”

Failure to pay

Defendants stop paying - or fail to pay - their court bills for a variety of reasons.

Some die. Some lose their jobs. Some move and are hard to find.

Defendants remain on parole or supervision for a period of time, and once they go off, it's harder for court officials to keep track of their whereabouts and whether they've kept up with payments.

Although Sanchez was still on parole, it became clear when officials tried to track him down that he wasn't in Lancaster County anymore.

He had moved to New Mexico.

Other defendants forget about their obligations.

Robert Ball, 29, of York pleaded guilty to terroristic threats and other charges in 1998 and spent five years in the Harrisburg State Hospital. Ball said he didn't realize that he still owed money until he received a delinquency letter in the mail from the York County Clerk of Courts office.

He was upset when he read that authorities could put out a warrant for his arrest.

“I thought it was all taken care of until (my caregiver) told me about it,” he said.

Ball, who boxes tools for the Penn-Mar Organization, set up a payment plan. He'll pay $20 a month toward his nearly $500 bill.

Those who don't have any income can't be thrown in prison, as Pennsylvania doesn't have a debtor's prison, District Attorney Stan Rebert said.

Those who can't pay can do community service to help pay for their court costs and fines, but restitution must be paid in cash, O'Shell said.

That's what Knaub, 42, of Windsor Township is waiting on. He just wants his $338.51 from Sanchez.

Knaub has talked to officials in the adult probation, clerk of courts and district attorney's offices, as well as to the sheriff's department and his state senator and representative.

He even checked to see if he could be reimbursed through the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Compensation fund, which helps victims and their families receive compensation for uninsured or unreimbursable medical expenses, funeral expenses, counseling, loss of earnings and stolen benefit cash.

The fund consists of fines and penalties assessed against those convicted of crimes.

Knaub was told that he didn't qualify because he hadn't been injured.

“Here I am, still waiting. Now why?” Knaub said.

Chasing the money

The letter that Ball received was one of thousands the York County Clerk of Courts sends out every year. It's one tool the office uses to prompt people to pay, O'Shell said.

If someone does not pay money due in driving-related offenses, his office can ask the state Department of Transportation to revoke their driver's license. PennDOT gives defendants 30 days to make their accounts right.

Since some people need to be able to drive to get to work or get a better job, O'Shell said, his office will work with defendants and give them a chance.

But if they blow it, that's it, he said. His staff doesn't have time to suspend licenses for the same defendant over and over.

The county has started a special unit designed to track down defendants who haven't met their obligations and get them to start or resume making payments. Those who refuse to do so could go before a judge.

To help fund the new team, which will consist of six employees and cost about $250,000, the county has added $5 to defendants' supervision fee. So the government is charging defendants to help track down those who haven't made their payments.

Officials realize they're not going to be able to recoup all $55 million owed. But the goal is to collect as much money as they can for the victims, the county and the state.

They plan to start with the most recent cases - believing that it will be easier to track down those defendants - and work back through the years, Sabol said.

Chuck Noll, the county's chief clerk/administrator, said he expects the unit to bring in about $400,000 the first year and nearly $1 million the next year. In the third year, the team should be hitting its stride.

“The program, I think, will be more successful once it gets started and people understand that in fact the outstanding costs and fines are no longer just going to be ignored,” Noll said. “People become complacent because no one comes after them to pay.”

If the unit is successful, as the one in Lancaster County has been, officials said it could give the taxpayers some relief. For example, York County raised taxes by 2.9 percent this year to help cover a budget increase of $12.3 million.

“Very feasibly, you could eliminate the need for a tax increase next year,” Treasurer Barbara Bair said.

Spend money to get money

The effort, though, will not come without some up-front cost.

Defendants who thumb their noses at paying or conveniently forget will be brought in to court. If judges throw delinquents in prison for non-compliance, that raises another problem.

It costs taxpayers $53.74 a day to house an inmate at the York County prison, the warden said.

And again, the defendants wouldn't necessarily be able to work to pay their dues.

But that's not all.

More local inmates behind bars means fewer immigration detainees that the county can house. That means less money - $59.71 (including a 10 percent profit margin) for each detainee - from the federal government, which in turn helps to keep taxes down.

“We might see a spike in the prison population as we start to move this forward,” O'Shell said. “Yes, that will cost the county in the short term, but we believe the long-term gain will be there.”

If people see that the court, probation and clerk of courts are serious about collecting the money, a message will be sent that it will be easier to pay than to go through the hassles of court proceedings and ending up in prison.

Trying to avoid prison

Some say that the threat of prison can be an incentive for people to pay up.

“When those jail doors are approaching, suddenly they do get rich,” Rebert said.

In some cases, bills are paid the same day as a judge threatens prison time.

Gina Brenneman, a Girl Scout troop leader, passed a bad check two years ago for $980 worth of Girl Scout cookies, according to court records.

Brenneman, 36, of Springettsbury Township pleaded guilty in December 2005 to paying with bad checks in two separate cases - one involving the Penn Laurel Girl Scout Council and the other involving Lowe's.

Judge Penny Blackwell placed Brenneman on 18 months probation and told her to pay $1,000 in restitution to the Girl Scout council and $842.56 to Lowe's in addition to court costs and fines.

When months passed without a check showing up in the mail, Pat Hoyt, an accounting assistant with the Penn Laurel Girl Scout Council, started contacting court officials. Profits from the cookie sales benefit Girl Scout programs and troops.

“I felt as though I had to keep checking to see what was going on,” Hoyt said.

Adult probation officers filed a probation violation petition against Brenneman in October, saying that she failed to pay anything toward her financial obligations. Brenneman was expected to pay at least $100 a month.

In December, Blackwell ordered Brenneman to go to prison until the money was paid in full.

The bill - $3,243.30 - was paid off that day, court records show.

Brenneman said she had no comment.

Trying to get what's owed

Hoyt's persistence paid off in getting the money back for the Girl Scouts.

But that doesn't always work. Knaub, who's tried for years to get a few hundred dollars from Sanchez, can attest to that.

Sanchez's whereabouts these days remains unclear.

His uncle, Luciano Sanchez, in Rio Rancho, N.M., said he hasn't seen or heard from his nephew in several years. County officials had received information that Sanchez had moved there, and they mailed him letters regarding his payments.

His father, Ronald Sanchez of Red Lion, said he doesn't have any idea where his son is.

That makes it hard to collect the money unless Sanchez is stopped by police, or he decides to pay the rest of his bill.

In some cases, prosecutors will weigh whether it's worth spending thousands of dollars to extradite a defendant who is caught in a far away state, such as New Mexico.

But in the Sanchez case, he still owes money to multiple victims, and the district attorney's office would consider bringing him back to pay his obligations if authorities find him.

“We don't forget about our victims,” York County Assistant District Attorney Tim Barker said.

Knaub said he'll believe it when he sees it. He has bills to pay, and he could use the money. “I just want my money, and I'll go away,” he said. “You won't hear from me again.”

The numbers

Number of cases in the York County court system: 52,170

Total amount defendants owe: $55.1 million

No. of cases in which defendant hasn't paid anything: 22,938

Total balance in those cases: $17,198,382.22

What that would buy: That's the estimated cost for the county to renovate the old Bon-Ton building, which is the Government Center.

No. of cases in which the defendant owes $100 or less and hasn't paid anything: 1,129

Total balance in those cases: $55,350.61

What that would pay for: About one probation officer