Sheriffs across the state say they have more arrest warrants than deputies to process them.
That includes Cambria County, where Sheriff Bob Kolar told reporter Mark Pesto his office had 617 outstanding warrants as of late November.
Kolar said his staff of 24 full-time and seven per-diem deputies gets about 15 new warrants to process each week.
The Somerset County sheriff’s office reported 100 active warrants, and reporter John Finnerty in Harrisburg wrote that there were more than 450,000 active warrants across the state – some going back many years.
Much of the crush involves warrants for individuals who are unable to make court-ordered payments for fines or restitutions, Finnerty reported.
Most county budgets probably don’t have the means to hire an army of new deputies to handle the surge in warrants.
But we like what we’re seeing in some areas – a combination of responses that includes trying to issue fewer arrest warrants for nonviolent offenders while also giving individuals other ways to meet obligations, including paying their fines.
State Rep. Donna Bullock, a Philadelphia Democrat, has proposed legislation that would require individuals to appear for hearings concerning their “debts to society” before warrants are issued.
Bullock isn’t proposing that individuals avoid payment when they’ve been fined or penalized, rather that the courts evaluate their capacity for making payments in full or through installments before sending deputies out to pick them up.
We agree with the premise that individuals sitting in jail won’t be making any payments.
“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.”
The downside of this plan is that it shifts work out of the sheriff’s office to other county agencies.
Bullock’s bill has not moved out of the judicial committee.
Tom Maioli, executive director of the Pennsylvania Sheriff’s Association, told Finnerty that he favors steps at the county level to ease the warrants burden on sheriffs.
For example, Allegheny County to the west now offers an amnesty program that assures nonviolent offenders that they won’t be placed under arrest if they come forward to make arrangements to begin paying on their fines.
That seems to be a reasonable approach.
Columbia County reports having more success by publicizing the faces of those who have had warrants issued for their arrest.
Sheriff Tim Chamberlain told Finnerty his department has made arrests after hearing of the whereabouts of individuals whose faces were displayed at public events, such as the county fair.
Sheriff’s offices often handle many other duties – including prisoner transport and courthouse security.
Maioli noted that a fund operated by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency that traditionally provided grants for training of deputies “has fallen on hard times” – with counties actually owed about $4 million in back reimbursements.
Until another funding source is found for hiring and training deputies, counties will need to be creative in how they manage warrants.
For some, issuing fewer arrest warrants, or allowing individuals to set up payment plans, might be the answer.
For others, getting the public involved in finding wanted individuals is helpful.
Even if money is tight, the state should offer leadership on this issue that is constant burden for county sheriffs’ offices.