Course aims to halt bad checks

New program seeks to divert court cases, ease merchant costs

July 11, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

People caught writing bad checks in Anne Arundel County may be sent back to school for a crash course in personal-finance management and self-improvement.

A new privatized program in the county is building on a 2-decades-old effort by the state's attorney's office that has diverted thousands of cases from court and gotten millions of dollars returned to merchants.

But until now, merchants have had to pay to recoup their losses - either $5 or 10 percent of the bounced check amount and sometimes the $25 fee banks assess a merchant when a check bounces, plus mailing and incidental fees - which eats into the sums they recover.

Under the privatized program, all costs are assessed to the person who wrote the bad check - including $125 to attend an eight-hour self-improvement class that focuses on how not to let their finances spin out of control. At the prosecutor's discretion, a first-time offender would not get a criminal record if he or she completes the class, pays the fees and repays the merchant.

"The main difference is that it really doesn't cost me anything," said Raymond L. Sears, owner of Pizza and Taco Express in Annapolis. "I hope this is going to click, that they'll say, `Oh no, I'm going to go to a class at my own expense.'"

The program is run by American Corrective Counseling Services Inc. (ACCS), based in San Clemente, Calif. The company has contracts for diversion programs in about 63 jurisdictions in 15 states, said marketing director Kirk Barrus.

The company makes money on the classes, so there is no charge to the merchants or the prosecutors' offices, Barrus said.

Anne Arundel was the second prosecutor's office in the state to turn to ACCS. Baltimore City was the first, beginning last year. Barrus said three other Maryland counties are gearing up programs with ACCS - Baltimore, Harford and Prince George's.

Katherine A. Bauer runs the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office bad-check program - a program that sees its numbers climb annually. "The paperwork is just overwhelming," she said.

Prosecutors looked into ACCS after seeing a presentation at a recent district attorneys conference.

Last year, Bauer processed 3,311 bad-check complaints. Most were ironed out, but 749 resulted in criminal charges; 145 could not be pressed for a variety of reasons, including the deaths of two offenders.

ACCS will take on some of Bauer's work, but not the cases that are taken to court.

In the new program, offenders will be ordered to complete an eight-hour class in personal responsibility, managing stress and finances, and budgeting. The first will be at the end of this month.

Businesses may also be offered a quick class in how to screen for bad checks.

The county's original diversion program, which began in 1979, had merchants filing charges and trying to recoup money through the state's attorney's office. In 1995, the program was changed to make it somewhat easier for businesses, but merchants still had to pay fees.

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