HARRISBURG – Law enforcement across the state is struggling to keep pace with more than 450,000 active warrants, issued for the arrest of wanted people, ranging from those sought for serious crimes to those sought for failing to make court-ordered payments for restitution or fines.
Some wanted individuals can go free for years only to find themselves in hot water once they get pulled over for a speeding ticket or other minor infraction and police discover there’s a warrant for the individuals arrest.
Sheriffs and deputies interviewed for this story say that their offices are short-staffed to the point that even if deputies are assigned to focus on tracking down wanted people, they often get pulled in to help cover other duties.
Columbia County sheriff Tim Chamberlain said that sheriff’s deputies often get tied up handling court house security or transporting prisoners from prison facilities to court appearances. Chamberlain is president of the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association.
Data provided by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts shows that less than half of the 460,975 active warrants issued since 2010 by the state’s county courts or District Judges were issued in 2018 or 2019.
There are 20,104 people who have been wanted since 2010, according to AOPC. Another 24,495 have been wanted since 2011.
The number of people being sought by county authorities, varies dramatically from county-to-county.
In Cambria County, there are about 642 active warrants, according to the sheriff’s office there.
Somerset County has fewer than 100 active warrants, according to information provided by that sheriff’s office.
Lawrence County has about 1,600, according to the sheriff’s office there. In Northumberland County, there are 1,295 active warrants, according to information provided by that sheriff’s office.
Montour County, the state’s smallest county, has active warrants for 97 people, county officials said. In Snyder County, there are active warrants for 285 people.
That’s more than three-times the number of warrants the county had less than two decades ago.
“When I started 16 years ago, there were about 80,” said Snyder County Chief Deputy Lucas Bingman. He said much of the increase seems to be connected to cases where people have failed to make court-ordered payments.
Critics say the state could reduce the backlog by rethinking how warrants are handled when the person is wanted for failing to make court-ordered payments.
Legislation introduced in the state House earlier this year would require that courts consider whether the individual has the ability to pay before issuing an arrest warrant.
“My proposal will require judges to hold a hearing if an individual has defaulted on the payment of a fine, fee, or restitution,” state Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, said in a memo explaining the legislation.
Pennsylvania’s current practices are unfair to poor defendants because more wealthy people accused of the same crimes can settle their payments and move on, while the poor defendants end up with warrants issued for their arrest, she said.
“The hearing will help determine if a person is financially able to pay,” Bullock said. “If paying the fine in full is determined to cause manifest hardship for the defendant or their family, the court will be required to establish a payment plan, assign community service, or some combination of those two options for the defendant.”
Her legislation, House Bill 562, was introduced in February but hasn’t moved out of the judiciary committee.
Northumberland County Sheriff Robert Wolfe said that he recognizes that it can be difficult for poor defendants to make court payments, but it wouldn’t make sense to stop requiring them to pay or arrest them for failing to do so.
“I’ve been hearing that since I became sheriff, but I disagree with it,” he said. “I understand that there are people who don’t have the means, but something has to be done to resolve it” when court payments aren’t being made.
Tom Maioli, executive director of the Pennsylvania Sheriff’s Association, said he doesn’t think there’s any immediate momentum to make those kind of changes to the state’s law regarding how or why wanted people are sought by authorities.
There have been a number of efforts taken at the county level to reduce the backlog of active warrants, he said. Earlier this year, the Allegheny County sheriff’s office offered a two-week amnesty program in which non-violent offenders were assured they wouldn’t be placed under arrest if they came forward to settle whatever issue had prompted the courts to issue a warrant for their arrests, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Other counties have tried different ways to track down people with warrants.
Chamberlain, in Columbia County, said that he’s had success posting photos of wanted individuals at the Bloomsburg Fair.
“We had someone come up and point at a picture and say ‘That guy's right outside the building,’” Chamberlain said.
Maioli said that sheriffs would like to see the state help alleviate the strain on their departments by providing more funding. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency has a fund that provides reimbursements to counties for the costs of training deputies.
“That fund has fallen on hard times” and hasn’t provided reimbursements to counties for the last two years, Maioli said. In all, counties are owed about $4 million in back reimbursements, he said.
The sheriff’s group hopes a proposal to provide a funding mechanism to solve that problem will be introduced in the state Senate in 2020, he said. And if the counties are getting reimbursed appropriately, it might free up funding so that fewer sheriff’s departments are too understaffed to tackle their backlog of warrants, he said.