Bucks County prison settlement has leftover money. Who will get it?
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Ashley R. Williams, Bucks County Courier Times
Money remaining after fewer than anticipated claims were paid to former Bucks County prison inmates will benefit more ex-offenders who want to expunge old criminal histories.
After the county recently closed out its class-action settlement claims for violating the privacy of nearly 10,000 incarcerated individuals, officials learned the number of claims was slightly lower than expected, county solicitor Joe Khan said last week during a commissioners meeting.
Bucks County anticipated that $6 million of the $10 million settlement would go to eligible class members, who each received $600. The final payout, though, was $5.92 million, county spokesman James O’Malley said.
The county will use the leftover $80,000 to continue its newly created expungement unit within the public defender’s office for a second year — another outcome of the settlement reached last year in the nearly seven-year legal battle over the county’s online Inmate Lookup Tool.
The county used $114,964 of its $200,000 contribution to create a new attorney position to handle expungement cases for public defender clients. On Friday, the county was unable to immediately provide information about the number of individuals who’ve had records have been expunged under the program.
Commissioners used funds from the sale of the water and sewer system at its county-run Neshaminy Manor Nursing Home to Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority late last year to pay the nearly $6 million in settlement claims.
As part of the settlement, the county also paid $4 million in legal bills for the plaintiff’s attorneys, as well as a $30,000 incentive award to the lead plaintiff in the case.
Bucks County spent another $2.48 million in legal fees fighting the federal case, which was filed in 2013, raising the total costs related to the lawsuit to more than $16 million.
At the time of the suit’s filing, the county did not carry law enforcement liability insurance.
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Still, the cost was much less than the potential $68 million in damages the county faced after a federal jury in 2019 found it violated the state’s Criminal History Record Information Act, known as CHRIA, when it posted inmate information and mugshots on a publicly accessible website.
CHRIA bars non-law enforcement agencies, including county jails, from sharing criminal records with the public and imposes a mandatory punitive penalty of $1,000 to $10,000 for each violation.
Attorneys for lead plaintiff, Darouysh Taha, of Sicklerville, New Jersey, estimated the county posted protected information for 68,000 former inmates — some incarcerated decades earlier — between 2011 and 2013.
Taha sued the county after he learned his personal information and mug shot appeared on the county’s Inmate LookUp Tool 11 years after his 1998 arrest was expunged.
The lawsuit received class-action status in 2016. The public inmate database still exists, but it was stripped of all but the most basic inmate information in 2013.
The previous Republican-led county administration disputed the court’s interpretation that it willfully violated CHRIA through “reckless disregard or indifference” to its legal obligation to protect confidential information. Commissioners originally vowed to appeal the jury award to the U.S. Third Circuit.
But after the newly elected Democratic majority commissioners assumed control in January, 2020, they directed the solicitor and outside counsel to settle the case.
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