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Program offers help for bad check writers

January 29, 2000|By MARLO BARNHART

Steve Hummel worries about the 280 bank accounts at Hagerstown Trust Company that are overdrawn on any given day.

Terry Masters struggles with the reality that many bad check writers who get in trouble with the law are not really hard-core criminals.

Together, Hummel and Masters are trying to solve both their problems.

As coordinator of the Diversion Alternative program in Washington County, Masters works with a lot of offenders who have written bad checks.

Some are pros, but Masters said most are people who are ill-equipped to handle their own finances realistically. Plus many times, the problem can be traced to a "significant other."

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"Lousy relationships are often at the crux of these situations," Masters said.

One partner cleans out a bank account without telling the other and checks start bouncing.

Both Masters and Hummel said another factor is that many people in these situations are migratory and the notices about bad checks don't catch up with them until the law gets involved.

The program with Hagerstown Trust began in 1998 and has grown in size and significance. To date, 92 people have been referred to the program and only four have gone back to court because they didn't attend.

"I first heard about it in Allegany County and thought it was a good idea," Masters said.

What happens is when first-time bad check writers come into the criminal justice system, Masters identifies them and checks to see if they are right for the program.

Instead of being prosecuted and getting a criminal record, they are given the opportunity to straighten out their finances.

The first-timers are required to make full restitution. Only then are they given the opportunity to attend a one-time banking course that lasts about 2 1/2 hours. The course has been taught by Hummel since its inception in December 1998.

Participants who complete the course will avoid a criminal record.

"The course is very similar to the one I've been teaching for six or seven years in the Jail Substance Abuse Program at the Washington County Detention Center," Hummel said.

The adaptation to the Diversions program was natural.

"My background is banking and Terry's is education," Hummel said.

Masters is the former principal of Clear Spring High School.

Classes are held at the bank. With Masters in the classroom, Hummel shows the students how to use banking services, how to balance a checkbook, how to read a bank statement and the path a check takes from time it is written until it is taken to criminal court for prosecution.

Usually four classes are held each year. The next class is in March and it is already filled - 24 are enrolled.

"There are already 11 signed up for the June class," Masters said.

Hummel said he is often willing to take a chance opening new accounts for people who have been through this educational experience.

"In five years, there won't be any paychecks anymore," Hummel said. "Everything will be direct deposited - paychecks, Social Security, tax refunds ... everything."

When that happens, everyone will have to have some kind of bank account - even the bad check writers.

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