PITTSBURGH – The propensity of Washington County Court of Common Pleas judges to allow defendants to perform community service instead of paying fines and other penalties has cost State and County 1, $ 56 million in recent years, a state audit found.
State Auditor General Timothy DeFoor released his findings on Friday showing the loss of potential revenue for 2016 and 2019 – including $ 513,178 that could have been paid to the state for various victim services and policing programs – but noted that there was no evidence that he had been hijacked or stolen.
The county clerk’s office audit looked at the same four-year period in which its former boss, Frank Scandal, stole more than $ 97,000 from the office, but DeFoor said his findings had nothing to do with see with the administration of the row office. himself. Instead, he blamed the practice of allowing “alternative sentencing programs” for those convicted of crimes to perform community service or get credit for a jail term rather than paying the fines. court costs, fees and other charges.
DeFoor said the ability for judges to waive these payments was “effectively underestimating the taxpayer” of funds used for various state and county programs. The audit found 3,420 cases of adjustments in the county over the four-year period.
“This is important because the funds paid by the accused support services for victims, such as domestic violence programs and law enforcement training statewide,” DeFoor said at a conference. press release in Pittsburgh. “Now, being a former law enforcement officer, I certainly understand the value and I know the value of alternative sentencing programs. However, these programs must operate within the framework of the law.
The audit found no instances of favoritism or criminality within the program, DeFoor said, but he believes the community service option should only be reserved for those who don’t have the money for it. pay.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with alternative community service sentences,” DeFoor said. “It’s almost reserved for people in need and who cannot afford to pay in this situation. But there is also a process in which it has to take place, a hearing to determine someone’s eligibility for this program, has to take place in front of a job. This process never took place and this process was ignored.
Representatives for Presiding Judge John DiSalle and receiver Patrick Grimm referred all questions about the audit to the Pennsylvania Courts Administration Office, which oversees the state’s judicial system.
The APOC issued a scathing rebuke of the Auditor General’s report on Friday night, saying it “provided an incomplete and distorted picture of the community service program” that has operated in Washington County for the past 25 years. The statement said the program for sentencing indigent defendants to community service to “pay off” their fines and court costs is in accordance with state law.
“In the past three years alone, this program has provided services valued at nearly $ 600,000, representing more than 82,000 hours of work in public buildings, parks, churches and other non-profit organizations. profit located only in Washington County, “the statement said. “When defendants are found indigent, this program allows community service to compensate for fines and costs that would otherwise not be recovered. “
APOC challenged the Auditor General’s findings and said the report “violated” the court’s power to interpret the law.
“These are win-win community service opportunities that benefit Washington County taxpayers,” the statement said.
DeFoor said his audit team had not spoken to DiSalle or Senior Judge Katherine Emery, who was presiding judge of the courthouse during the audit period before her retirement earlier this year. However, the audit indicated that the alternative sentencing options predated Emery’s tenure as presiding judge when she took office in 2015.
County Commission Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan, who watched a live video of the state auditor’s press conference, said the situation appears to be a difference in legal opinions as to whether the service community-based approach should be a viable option for many criminal defendants passing through justice systems.
“This is a disagreement between the (state) auditor general and the courts,” said Irey Vaughan.
Although the commissioners were not involved in the court process, she praised the county’s community service program and what it has offered over the years.
“The community service program has provided countless hours to our municipalities and non-profit organizations,” said Irey Vaughan.
Meanwhile, DeFoor said his office’s investigation confirmed the results of a separate audit by County Comptroller Michael Namie showing Scandal embezzled around $ 97,000 of office money in 2018 and 2019. Scandal, a Democrat who lost re-election in November 2019 just after the money went missing, pleaded guilty last year to multiple counts and was ordered to pay $ 101,876 in restitution.
DeFoor praised the work of new court clerk Brenda Davis, the Republican who defeated Scandal, for putting “tighter internal controls” in place to prevent similar thefts from happening again in the future . In an emailed statement shortly after the press conference, Davis stressed that the audit covered the period leading up to he took office.
“I run my office in accordance with the laws, rules and regulations governed by the State of Pennsylvania,” said Davis.
DeFoor said it was “possible” that the alternative sentencing program and lower collection numbers continued under Davis, but he did not blame her or the office.
“This lack of collection is not the fault of the clerk of the courts, but current practice prevents the clerk of the courts from remitting funds owed to the state,” he said.