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Editorial: Prosecutors’ bad idea

Six district attorneys across the state, including the chief law enforcement officer for Hampshire and Franklin counties, had until recently hired two debt-collection agencies to go after the writers of bad checks on behalf of those who had been ripped off.

While that practice may have been a well-intentioned effort to collect money for the small businesses and individuals who had been victimized, it was a bad idea.

That all six of these district attorneys ended their contracts with the debt-collection companies once the Boston Globe launched an investigation into the practice is good, although we wish they had seen the slippery slope they were going down on their own. We suggest they stick to their primary purpose, which is to prevent crime and bring criminals to justice.

Elizabeth Scheibel, the former district attorney for Hampshire and Franklin counties, began working with a debt-collection operation in 2009. After David Sullivan took over as Northwestern district attorney in 2011, he continued the practice for two years.

He told the Gazette this week he terminated his office’s contract with BounceBack in January after he began to look into it in the fall.

The fall was when the Globe launched its investigation. District attorneys in Suffolk, Middlesex, Norfolk, Bristol, Hampshire and Franklin counties and Cape Cod severed or temporarily suspended their contracts after the Globe began asking questions.

Supporters of the practice say the rationale for it is sound: to offer financial justice to merchants and consumers while also keeping people out of the criminal justice system who maybe shouldn’t be there. Sullivan said outsourcing the collection on bad checks also served to reduce the burden on police departments, court officials and prosecutors. Proponents also say it helps over-taxed prosecutors focus resources on criminals who pose violent threats.

Maybe so. But the process can be as important as the result. Debt-collection companies are notorious for high-pressure tactics that step into unethical behavior and assertions that are at best misleading, at worst lies.

According to the Globe report, lengthy letters, scary in tone and content, were sent out on letterhead designed to convince recipients they were coming from a district attorney.

Furthermore, neither company, BounceBack or Corrective Solutions, is licensed to operate in Massachusetts. This means they don’t necessarily adhere to standards of fairness and ethics established for debt-collection agencies in this state. In other words, they may not follow the rules.

Sullivan said when he examined the letter sent by BounceBack, he realized it was designed to mislead. “I was not comfortable giving the erroneous impression that their enforcement letters were coming directly from our office,” he told the Gazette Sunday.

No government agency, least of all the branch charged with enforcing what is legal and just, should rely on tactics that deceive.

If the passing of a bad check rises to the level of a criminal act, the person who wrote that check should be prosecuted. The best judge of whether someone has engaged in a criminal activity or is simply overwhelmed by their own debts is a trained prosecutor, not a private company that stands to gain financially when it collects and therefore has incentive to collect by whatever means necessary.

Some of the district attorneys interviewed by the Globe said they intend to pursue legislation that would allow them to use these companies to handle bad-check cases.

Sullivan, meanwhile, told the Gazette he severed his relationship with BounceBack for good.

Instead, his office has launched a strategy of educating merchants about the best practices to avoid accepting bad checks.

For everyone involved, that seems an investment worth making.

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