Back in June, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner thought he had a solution to a thorny, frustrating bureaucratic problem.
The veteran judge had a young man in front of him for violating probation. The man, Eric Melaragni, 19, had pleaded guilty in January to stabbing and seriously wounding a man during a late-night party last year in South Philly. Melaragni was remorseful and willing to reimburse the victim’s $14,451 out-of-pocket medical costs. In a city where most criminal defendants are penniless and victims go uncompensated, Lerner gladly sentenced Melaragni to five years probation and 150 hours of community service.
Melaragni was supposed to be paying $120-a-month to victim Ryan Tascone, 23, but as of the June hearing Tascone hadn’t seen a dime. Melaragni insisted he made two $120 restitution payments and his father had documentation to prove it.
After spending two frustrating days trying to find someone in the Philadelphia justice system to explain what happened to the $240 restitution paid, Lerner decided Melaragni’s dad, Scott, had a good idea: set up an independent bank account for Tascone in which Eric could directly deposit restitution payments.
Melaragnis were happy, the victim was happy, Assistant District Attorney Debra Naish was happy, Lerner was happy.
But not everyone.
Apparently concerned about the precedent of a judge going around the established system for handling restitution, fines and costs paid by a criminal defendant, Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe ordered Lerner to vacate the arrangement and order Melaragni to use the services of the county probation department.
“Even judges have people over them,” Lerner said opening Friday’s hearing.
“I have been ordered by the president judge to return the restitution function to the probation department,” Lerner told the parties. “Obviously, I will comply with the order even though doing that now will remove a system put in place that is working. For the first time, this victim is receiving restitution as it’s being paid.”
Why the $240 never got from Melaragni to Tascone remains a mystery though the problem may have been rooted in the transition to the newly created Office of Court Compliance.
In November, The Inquirer detailed how Philadelphia criminals owed hundreds of millions in restitution and court costs. The article noted that defendants supposedly paying a total of $144 million annually had paid just $10 million. Of 224,000 defendants, 206,000 were behind.
Court officials responded by creating the new office to take restitution out of the hands of the probation department. But OCC officials are not present in court when a judge orders restitution; a probation officer is.
The person is those shoes Friday was probation officer Duane Archie, who seemed uncomfortable that he was being ordered to make sure restitution was collected when, he told the judge, “the probation department’s duty to do that has been taken away.”
“Who is going to make sure the money gets to the victim?” the judge asked.
Archie ultimately agreed to work with the Melaragnis, defense attorney Michael A. DeFino and the Office of Court Compliance to make sure the restitution gets to the victim.
Lerner sighed as he told courtroom staff he hoped the case was finally over. He then told the parties in court that a favorite saying was “no good deed goes unpunished.”
“I hope we have all had a sufficient amount of punishment for the good deed we tried to accomplish,” Lerner added.