Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Jan. 15, 2001

Wright County taking new approach to bad checks

By John Holler

Anyone who owns a business has likely gone through a similar routine ­ someone passes a bad check and leaves the merchant holding the bill.

Typically, the process ends up in the hands of the sheriff's department and the county attorney.

That process is going to change in Wright County. County Attorney Tom Kelly came before the county board at its Jan. 9 meeting to present a new program to help merchants, taxpayers, and even the bad check writers, themselves, as part of his department's Bad Check Restitution Program.

"When my office moved to the fourth floor of the courthouse, we took 21,000 criminal files with us," Kelly said. "Every year, we have 1,200 to 1,400 bad check files ­ which is a crime and a crime that we prosecute. Over time, we're talking millions of dollars involved in bad checks."

The program, which was allowed by the State Legislature in 1999, gave county attorneys latitude in creating such programs. Kelly opted to join forces with American Correction Counseling Services (ACCS), a California-based company that works in 16 states and with jurisdictions as large as Los Angeles County (7 million people).

Kelly said that ACCS will allow the current process to be diverted. As an example, he said, if someone passes a $50 bad check, the merchant sends the check to the sheriff's department, which writes up a document to pass along to the county attorney.

Once there, a complaint is written, a file is opened and it passes along to court administration. That office then creates a file and judge must hear the complaint with attorney and court administration staff present. A bench warrant is then issued, since 90 percent of violators don't show up for court and the process begins again.

"There's no way to put an actual price tag on how much the entire process costs," Kelly said. "I will say it is substantial. A file will wind up being handled by about 10 different people and the time spent adds up as the process goes on."

Just as important, Kelly said, is that the check writer winds up with a criminal record in the process ­ something that can be avoided under the new plan. Presently, a bad check writer is fined $85 and must make restitution for the check. Under the new plan, the same individual will pay $110, restitution and $25 per check (of which the county receives $12.50), but, if he or she successfully completes the program, will not have the matter as part of a criminal record.

"Under the old system, at some point, the person wound up in front of someone in black robe and had a criminal record," Kelly said. "This way, we can hopefully avoid that and, through the classes, maybe help that person learn from the experience and come away with something positive."

The positives have a trickle down effect, Kelly added. Not only can people avoid having the checks become part of their criminal history, it will relieve some of the congestion in the courts system, and the ACCS program is self-sustaining, so it doesn't require county funding.

The county attorney's office has set up informational avenues for merchants and bad check writers alike to explain the program in full. One option is to go the county Web site at and click on "county links," then "county attorney," and then "check policy."

For those without internet access, a toll free number has been set up at 877-593-2874, which is being overseen by Michelle Sandquist of the county attorney's office.

"Ideally, we're looking to reduce the numbers of bad check complaints going through our office by about 80 percent," Kelly said. "This program has worked almost everywhere it's been in place and I'm convinced it will work here and be a win-win for the county, the business people and the people who write the bad checks in the first place."

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