By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Pay up or spend time in jail.
That's what Lawrence County President Judge Ralph D. Pratt has in mind for deadbeats who haven't paid their court-ordered fines, costs or restitution.
In April, the county probation office hired collections officer Daniel Klein to go after at least 2,000 people who are no longer on probation but still owe the county money.
The money owed to the county and crime victims -- some dating back to the early 1970s -- is close to $1 million, said William Mancino, director of the county adult probation office.
Most went unpaid and unchallenged because the county court system didn't make it a priority to collect the money, Pratt said.
But, now it's a priority.
What's been done: County commissioners agreed last year to hire a full-time collections officer and promote a part-time assistant district attorney to full time to handle civil contempt orders for people who do not pay their court-ordered fines.
"The courts can use civil contempt of court to force people to comply with the orders," Pratt said.
Pratt said those who refuse to pay will be sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court.
If they don't pay up after getting out of jail, they will be hauled back to court and put in jail for an additional six months, the judge said.
"You will hold the keys to the jail cell in your hands," he said of the scofflaws.
Klein, who started work in April, has been tracking people through a credit search system and the Internet. Mancino said people from as far away as Arizona have already paid old court fines after receiving notice from Klein.
Only people who refuse to pay after at least two dunning letters and numerous telephone calls will be hauled into court, he said. There are at least a dozen people who are set to appear before Pratt in August for refusing to pay. Pratt will also be handling civil contempt of court orders for people who are delinquent paying fines to area district justices.
More incentives: Spending time in jail won't be the only problem for people who don't pay up, said Court Administrator Philip Boudewyns.
The Department of Welfare has agreed to withhold cash assistance and the Department of Motor Vehicles will revoke the driver's license of anyone refusing to pay their county court-ordered costs, he said.
"We want to make this as painless as possible. We've even installed a machine in the adult probation office that accepts Visa, MasterCard and debit cards," Boudewyns said. "Credit card companies can't put you in jail if you don't pay, but we can."
They are also offering to start payment plans for people who owe large amounts, Mancino said.
Pratt said they will try this aggressive approach to collecting overdue court costs for one year.
The goal is to collect about $250,000 more than last year in court ordered costs, fines and restitution. Last year the county collectd about $500,000.
"We know it will work. We've given it 12 months to reach an obtainable goal and we know it will go beyond that," Pratt said.