LQ Forsyth Promotes Restitution Education

June 1, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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This August, attorney William Forsyth will have been representing the people of KentCounty in the prosecutor's office for 31 years — 10 years as an assistant prosecutor and, for the last 21, as the elected KentCounty prosecutor.

"I was fortunate enough to find a career that I really like," he said.

But the longtime prosecutor sometimes has reservations about prosecuting people.

One thing he tries to impress on new assistant prosecutors is the gravity of the decision about whether to charge someone with a crime.

"You pretty much tarnish the reputation of anybody you charge, and if you are wrong, it's no consolation" to that innocent person, he said.

Sometimes, he said, new assistant prosecutors are pressured by law enforcement officers to prosecute an individual when that might not be what an experienced prosecutor would recommend.

"Police have a certain perspective on a case, and you need to learn how to say no to them," said Forsyth. "It's not an easy thing to do when you are brand new to this job."

On the other hand, some police agencies are not eager to add bad check investigations to their workload, especially when it's the small potatoes of crime — a non-sufficient funds check made out for less than $1,000. The investigation is usually time consuming and tedious, and may hardly seem worth the cost to the taxpayers of criminal prosecution.

Still, the people whose businesses have received a small bad check are victims of crime and they deserve protection under the law.

There are now companies in the United States that can resolve many of the small bad check cases and make it a winning situation for the local government, the business victimized by a bad check, and even for the bad check passer himself.

Last year, when the Metropolitan Fraud and Identity Theft team was being formed in KentCounty, Forsyth saw an opportunity to "outsource" the handling of bad checks under $1,000 to American Corrective Counseling Services, which is based in San Clemente, Calif., and already provides the service in other Michigan counties.

The Bad Check Restitution Program was launched by the Kent County Prosecutor's Office last December, and the main objective, said Forsyth, is to get full restitution to the victim of a bad check while saving local governments time and money otherwise spent on the investigation and prosecution.

"This does not cost the county anything," said Forsyth. "The whole program is paid for by the people who write the bad checks themselves."

The secondary objective is to divert the bad check writer from criminal prosecution, if he or she makes restitution and can learn a valuable lesson about personal financial management.

Here's how it works:

A business takes a bad check or checks, written for less than a total of $1,000. (No check is too small to qualify.) The program does not cover counterfeit or forged checks, only checks written on a closed account or "NSF"— the bank code for non-sufficient funds.

The victimized business sends a legally required "courtesy notice" to the check writer, who has five days to remit payment. If the person does not respond, the victim contacts the Bad Check Restitution Program toll-free at (866) 398-0757, or at the Web site, www.checkprogram.com/kentcountymi. Victims fill out a crime report and follow the instructions. There is no cost to do this.

American Corrective Counseling Services will try to locate the check writer, who is advised he or she will face criminal prosecution unless full restitution is made within a specified time. The offender is also required to take an educational class on personal financial management from ACCS. The class costs the check writer $180, according to Forsyth, and a small percentage of that is rebated to the county government. The class is a a single 5 1/2-hour session.

"We are an education-based company," said Cindy Wise, Midwest regional manager for ACCS, adding that "the class is a key component of this (court) diversion process." The classes are usually held at a local college or university and are "very successful," according to Wise. "Our recidivism rate across the country is less than 5 percent," she said.

ACCS is in its 20th year of business and now generates more than $20 million a year in restitution in the 17 states in which it operates.

The program in KentCounty started in December, and by early May, according to Forsyth, 3,218 bad checks had been referred to the program, and 235 bad check writers had begun making restitution and had taken the class. Forsyth added that $99,689 in restitution had been made to the victims in a little more than four months since the start of the program here.

The largest merchant in Kent County making use of the prosecutor's bad check program is — no surprise — Meijer stores.

Stacie Behler, vice president of public affairs at Meijer Inc., could not divulge any statistics on the bad check losses suffered by Meijer but did say that "the prosecutor's program is fantastic," adding that it had "resulted in an increase in the amount of restitution we are seeing."

Not only is there no cost to the taxpayers for the Bad Check Restitution Program, it actually generates some revenue for the KentCounty government. A small percentage of the class fees collected by ACCS are rebated back to the county, and that amount for the first few months of the program was $3,513. Forsyth expects it to generate at least $10,000 each year.

Not all bad check writers referred to the Bad Check Restitution Program cooperate — which then subjects them to prosecution. The overall recovery rate of restitution in cases turned over to ACCS is about 40 percent nationwide, though it can be more than 50 percent in some regions, according to Wise.

Still, those bad check writers who do make restitution, complete the class and avoid prosecution are helping to ease the burden on police and the judicial system.

"It literally takes thousands of cases away from us," said Lt. Paul Robinson of the Wyoming Police Department. He is heading the Kent County Metropolitan Fraud and Identity Theft Unit, which coordinates police investigations in Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming, and by the Kent County Sheriff's Department.

Counterfeit checks and forgeries are much more serious criminal activities than an NSF check, usually involving greater amounts of money, and counterfeiting is a growing problem. With the use of sophisticated computers, graphic software, scanners and printers, people "can make what look like payroll checks" issued by local companies, said Robinson.

Then the checks are cashed (sometimes by gangs of people) on payday at businesses that normally cash those company payroll checks.

He said counterfeit checks are "probably the No. 1 problem" facing the Metropolitan Fraud and Identify Theft Unit, and the Bad Check Restitution Program frees up the police to focus more on the counterfeit cases.

Of course, financial crimes are just part of the workload at the Kent County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

"We do a lot of things," noted Forsyth. For example, he has 19 employees who handle nothing but paternity and non-support cases, which totaled more than 3,000 in 2005. In that year (the latest for which stats are available), the prosecutor's office employed 84 people and had an annual budget slightly less than $7 million. In 2005, the adult criminal division (with 24 attorneys and 16 support positions) obtained 2,957 felony convictions by plea or trial.

Forsyth is from the small town of Standish, 30 miles north of Bay City, where his father ran a hardware store.

"He felt he had been trapped in the hardware store, (so) he kind of encouraged me to go to law school," said Forsyth.

After attending AlbionCollege, Forsyth was accepted at the University of Detroit law school, where he graduated in 1973. His first job was on the prosecutor's staff in LapeerCounty, for about two years. Then he joined the KentCounty prosecutor's staff, where 10 years later he was the chief assistant prosecutor. He was appointed prosecutor to fill an unexpired term in January 1987. Every four years, he must face re-election, the next time in 2008.

"I've been fortunate that in the last three elections, nobody ran against me," said Forsyth.     LQX

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