Philadelphia's court system misdirects a restitution payment

Judge Benjamin Lerner was furious when a defendant's restitution payments never reached the victim.
Judge Benjamin Lerner was furious when a defendant's restitution payments never reached the victim. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 11, 2011

Judges look for signs of remorse when sentencing a person convicted of a crime.

Not "It was a mistake" or an "error in judgment."

It's remorse, as in "I'm sorry I broke the law," "I'm sorry I hurt you," or "I was wrong."

So it may come as a surprise that when a convicted criminal tries to apologize to the victim and make amends, the response of lawyers and the courts is to keep the parties at arm's length.

It's understandable. Human emotions are volatile, especially when one person injures another.

And, like most institutional responses, it's tough to overcome, even for an experienced judge such as Benjamin Lerner of Philadelphia's Common Pleas Court. Lerner recently resorted to a court order to take restitution from the probation system to ensure the money got to the victim - money the admitted assailant had begun paying.

"We are all promising - the legislators, court officials, victims' advocates - all trying to tell victims of crime that we are really concerned about their rights and their interests," Lerner fumed.

"Well, one of the most telling things is that the court payment system doesn't put restitution payments to the victim first - before the public-funded system tries to collect [court] user fees."

Except to the principals, there was little to distinguish Commonwealth v. Melaragni from thousands of other Philadelphia criminal cases.

A late-night party March 31, 2010, in South Philly. A young woman, her boyfriend, and her ex, who enters the mix.

An argument. Ryan Tascone, 23, is stabbed by Eric Melaragni, 18. Tascone goes to surgery and loses his spleen.

What was unusual was that Melaragni pleaded no contest in the assault. He was remorseful and, with family support, eager to make amends.

In January, Lerner sentenced Melaragni to five years on probation and 150 hours of community service, and ordered $14,541 restitution - Tascone's medical expenses - plus court costs of $3,406.

Lerner ordered Melaragni to pay Tascone $120 a month.

In Philadelphia's court system, that's called a good day. Victim satisfied; remorseful first offender gets second chance; prosecutor, defense, and judge proud justice was done.

So Lerner was troubled when he learned Melaragni was cited April 12 for violating probation. Tascone had not received a dollar.

A criminal who fails to pay restitution is hardly rare in Philadelphia.

In November, an Inquirer article detailed how Philadelphia criminals owed hundreds of millions in restitution and court costs. Of 224,000 defendants, 206,000 were behind in their payments.

Court officials responded with plans to go after people owing restitution and court costs. An Office of Court Compliance was created.

Court Administrator David Wasson estimated that, as of April 30, criminals owed victims $111 million in restitution. Restitution totaling $2.8 million was paid in 2010, he said.

It's no mystery. Most defendants have no money. Officials say than two-thirds of Philadelphians on probation or parole are jobless.

On June 13, Melaragni and attorney Helen Levin, Assistant District Attorney Debra Naish, and a probation officer went before Lerner.

Melaragni insisted he had made two $120 restitution payments. His father had documentation to prove it.

Lerner was stunned. Here was a defendant who wanted to pay restitution, who had money, who made payments - and the money did not get to the victim.

A hapless probation officer, filling in for Melaragni's officer, could not explain.

Lerner, 70, whose affable nature has survived 46 years in the law, including 13 on the bench, lost it that morning.

He postponed the hearing until the next day and ordered the Probation Department to send an administrator who could explain.

Lerner was no happier June 14 when Probation sent not a ranking official but Andrea Seralino, account manager for pretrial services.

Seralino nervously explained that when Lerner sentenced Melaragni, no one entered Tascone's name and address in the computer. So the money was not forwarded.

Naish insisted that she gave the information to the court clerk, and Lerner agreed: "When I was in the courtroom I saw Assistant District Attorney Naish provide the information, and I saw the information entered into the system."

Moreover, Lerner said, given that his sentence included restitution, why did no one question the purportedly missing victim information?

Instead, the system defaulted, applying Melaragni's $240 to various court costs. And so he was cited for violating probation.

"This is disgraceful. There is no excuse," Lerner added.

What happened remains a mystery.

Probation officials referred a reporter's questions to Joseph Lanzalotti, the deputy court administrator, whose office referred questions to the Office of Court Compliance, which referred questions to Court Administrator Wasson.

Wasson said his investigation showed that Tascone's information was never entered into the court computer.

Lerner, however, had already adopted a simpler solution, courtesy of Melaragni's father.

"Couldn't we just set up an independent bank account where I could send the money?" Scott Melaragni asked.

Lerner issued an order barring Probation from collecting or distributing restitution payments from Melaragni. The money now goes directly into a separate bank account for Tascone.


Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com., or @joeslobo on Twitter.

 

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