|Jerry Clabbers shows a hole in his rental home|
Thursday, January 28, 2016
When crime doesn't pay: Thousands in restitution owed by former Bucks juvenile offenders
More than five years ago, a Bucks County judge promised Jerry Clabbers he would get financial justice.
Clabbers, who is now 84, has collected less than half of what he's owed and he may not get much more because the vandals are now adults.
He isn't the first Bucks County resident in this situation.
Since 1998, the Bucks County Juvenile Probation Department has filed at least 69 other civil judgments against juveniles who failed to repay restitution orders before they aged out of the juvenile justice system. The outstanding balances for those other 69 cases totals more than $200,000, according to civil court records.
A loophole in Pennsylvania law relieves the juvenile court of responsibility for collecting court-ordered restitution once an offender turns 21 and that court's jurisdiction ends. After that, collection efforts fall to crime victims, who must pursue legal action on their own.
Offenders who age out of the juvenile court system also face few of the potential burdens that adults do regarding restitution. There's no threat of extending probation. Wages can’t be garnished. If they owe less than $1,000, the court isn’t required to file paperwork seeking repayment after probation ends. It's even possible the judgment can be deemed unenforceable.
“It’s a real slap in the face to the victim,” said Jennifer Storm, of the Pennsylvania Office of the Victim Advocate. “It really feels, in many ways, a lie that the justice system tells the victims.”
Court records are updated for individual cases after restitution is satisfied, according to the Bucks County Prothonotary Office said, but no one keeps an overall tally of how many offenders continue to pay after they age out of the juvenile system. And the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission hasn't examined post-probation restitution collection rates.
“I haven’t seen any data in that regard,” said Keith Snyder, the commission's executive director. “We’ve never addressed that. It’s a systemic issue that I’m interested in now.”
Statewide over the last decade, the percentage of Pennsylvania juveniles who failed to fulfill restitution orders has ranged from 14 percent in 2008 to nearly 25 percent in 2013, according to the juvenile judges commission. The overall amount of restitution collected from juveniles has fallen since 2009, when it hit a nine-year high of $2.8 million; $1.8 million was collected last year.
A handful of bills that recently passed the state House and are in a Senate committee would give the courts more tools over former juvenile offenders and adult offenders who haven't paid court restitution, he said.
State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-151, of Horsham, who has a restitution bill under Senate consideration, said: "These juveniles must be held accountable to the financial injuries they are causing their victims. This is about making the victim whole. The victim shouldn’t be forced to file a civil lawsuit. The criminal justice system should be taking care of our victims.”
The situation is different in New Jersey, where the state Probation Division is responsible for collecting court-ordered assessments and fees ordered as part of a juvenile’s probation sentence, according to New Jersey judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort. Among 200 Burlington County New Jersey juvenile offenders who aged out with restitution balances, the state has, so far, collected $46,946 of the $121,401 owed, or roughly 38 percent, Comfort said.
After juvenile court jurisdiction ends in New Jersey, an outstanding restitution order is filed with the court, Comfort said. Offenders who don't make payments must appear at an administrative hearing, where a payment plan is created. Offenders who don't follow their payment plans face wage garnishment, withholding of their state tax refunds, suspended driving privileges and arrest, Comfort said. Wage garnishment is the only step available for civil judgments in Pennsylvania, but victims must initiate that action.
Rewind to Oct. 27, 2009, when Clabbers' neighbors noticed lights inside one of his two unoccupied homes on 10 acres in the 200 block of West Bristol Road in Lower Southampton. The neighbors called police, who found eight teens under 18 and one 20-year-old man in the property's driveway and the two houses and barn in shambles.
Clabbers' photos showed the damage inside the three-bedroom carriage house, including sections of drywall punched out to expose the framing, a ripped down ceiling and ceiling fan blades torn off motors. Electrical wires and plumbing pipes were ripped out of the walls. A beach ball-size hole was punched through an interior wall to the home's exterior. In both houses, every window and door frame was knocked out and toilets and other large items thrown out windows, Clabbers said. The two houses and the barn were marred with spray paint.
“I was absolutely shocked,” he said. “The extent of damage was tremendous.”
The youngest defendants were adjudicated as delinquent in September 2010, the equivalent of being found guilty in adult court. As part of their dispositions, the adult equivalent of a sentence, the court ordered each of them to pay a portion of the $206,300 ordered in restitution. Clabbers requested the names and contact information for the parole officers handling the cases so he could track restitution payments.
“My wife and I are afraid that the offenders will not pay at all as ordered,” he wrote in his 2010 letter.
Those words came back to haunt Clabbers in 2014, when the first of the four juveniles with the highest restitution orders turned 21 and the court-ordered restitution was turned into a civil judgment. Of the original eight restitution orders, four offenders paid in full: $8,250 each. Clabbers received another $27,000 from the Bucks County juvenile court’s victim restitution fund, he said. As of mid-January, he's still owed more than $115,000.
Only one defendant has kept paying after his juvenile case closed. Most recently, he paid $100 in November and still owes $26,929, Clabbers said. Another defendant, who owes more than $20,000, stopped making payments nearly three years before his juvenile case was closed in January 2015.
The last defendant who's still under juvenile court supervision is now 20. As of January, he owes $33,128 of the $46,425 he was ordered to pay. For the last two years, that man, whose name is being withheld because he was charged as a juvenile, has worked two part-time jobs, but still worries every month about making the payments, according to his father.
The father said he was shocked when his then-14-year-old son was ordered to pay more than $46,000, which the father called excessive. His son said he only kicked in the drywall, but received one of the higher restitution orders after admitting he previously entered the home, the father said.
Before his son was old enough to get a job, he worked weekends and summers for his father, who funneled that money toward the restitution. His son sold his quad, paintball and bowling equipment and a video game console to raise money toward the debt, his father said. One day, the man's father said, he believes the restitution will be paid, though he worries how long it will take.
“It could take him forever to do it,” he added. “I just tell him, you are paying a car payment each month and do the best you can.”
Meantime, Clabbers said the vandalized homes and barn have been left to deteriorate. He said his insurance didn't pay for the damage because the unoccupied buildings weren't covered for vandalism and he can't afford the repairs.
Last year, a juvenile probation official suggested Clabbers hire an attorney to collect the rest of the restitution.
"We cannot afford those costs,” Clabbers said, adding, “We consider this unacceptable and shameful behavior by the Bucks County court system toward us as victims.”
Roughly one-quarter of Bucks County juveniles who have been found delinquent have been ordered to pay restitution, according to the county officials. In 2014, 94 juveniles — roughly 20 percent of young offenders in the county — were ordered to pay a combined $69,090 in restitution.
Attorney Robert Mancini, who specializes in representing juveniles, said he has found most juveniles he deals with pay their restitution before they turn 21. He said the court regularly warns them that failing to pay will impact their credit rating.
"If you don’t, it hangs over your head forever," Mancini said. "Your credit is dead at 21.”
Juvenile offenders who owe restitution are typically kept on probation until they make full payment, said William Rufe, Bucks County deputy chief of juvenile probation. Juveniles who work are expected to make their own payments, he said.
Among the highest unpaid judgments still on the books in Bucks are three filed against teens who robbed a Bristol business in 2007, stealing $62,000 worth of jewelry that was never recovered. Each juvenile was ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution. Eight years later, the men are adults and the owner of Another Tyme Antiques, Richard Vallejo, said he has collected only $2,173.88 and has received no payments since the juvenile cases were closed in 2010 and 2013.
Meanwhile, Vallejo said, he had to take a second mortgage to pay the jewelry vendor for the stolen items, which were not covered by his insurance. Vallejo said he'd be 126 years old by the time he was repaid under the repayment schedule the juvenile court judge set -- $15 a month for 750 months, which is 62.5 years.
Failure to pay a civil judgment can result in a person being held in contempt of court, with the maximum potential jail time being six months, according to Matt Weintraub, chief of prosecution for the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office.
Justin Nelson, now 26, was the lone adult convicted in the Clabbers vandalism spree; he was ordered to pay $9,600 in restitution with minimum installments of $200 a month. His balance is $7,316 and his last payment was more than a year ago, according to court records.
Unlike his younger co-defendants, Nelson faces jail time. The county filed a bench warrant for him in June after he failed to appear at a probation violation hearing for, among other things, not paying his court-ordered restitution. Nelson also owes $2,138.33 in unpaid restitution from another criminal case when he was a juvenile, according to a civil judgment Bucks County juvenile probation division filed against him in 2010, the year he turned 21.
The juvenile probation departments in Bucks and Montgomery counties created victim restitution funds in the 1990s. The funds get their money from what juveniles offenders pay the court and the collection of unpaid court fines against juveniles for summary offenses.
Montgomery County, where roughly 40 percent of juveniles who have been found delinquent have restitution orders, has a system that includes three restitution funds, compared to one fund in Bucks. The three funds help repay victims when offenders can't afford to pay, can't pay immediately or when other special circumstances exist. The funds get money, in part, from court fees.
The funds allow Montgomery County to immediately fill restitution orders for most victims, said Steve Custer, head of juvenile probation. “We don’t want the victims to suffer again because kids can’t pay quickly,” he added.
The victim funds are one reason few Montgomery County juveniles age out of the system owing money, Custer said. Since 2013, Montgomery County has filed five civil judgments totaling $95,996.40 against offenders who aged out. More than $80,000 of that amount is owed by one person.
The county pays juveniles without financial means to perform community service for $10 an hour, which goes into the victim funds.
“It’s not the money,” Custer added. “It’s that we are getting something out of the kids and they are thinking about what they did. That is the whole idea of restitution to begin with.”
Filing a civil judgment case is largely an empty gesture that requires a lot of paperwork, but often fails to collect more money, Custer said.
In 2013, a task force charged with examining Pennsylvania's restitution system recommended lawmakers strengthen existing tools to improve restitution collections from adjudicated delinquents between ages 18 and 21. The lack of court oversight is one reason that Storm, the Pennsylvania victim advocate, suspects juvenile restitution orders sit unpaid after they’re converted into civil judgments.
"Anytime you have someone who is no longer being supervised, it is much harder to collect,” she said. “There aren't any perceived penalties for failing to pay."
Lower Makefield attorney Scott Fegley agreed civil judgments are so notoriously difficult to enforce that most lawyers won’t take the cases from victims who want to pay them out of the restitution money that's recovered.
“It’s very difficult to enforce civil judgments in Pennsylvania. Especially if the person has no assets,” he said. “There is nothing to go after.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jociavaglia