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December 24, 2014

Alabama budget State to begin major effort to collect fines, court costs

Goal, say officials, is to shore up state finances, not throw people in jail

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Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2014 12:36 am | Updated: 1:01 am, Sun Aug 31, 2014.

If you've got a traffic ticket in Calhoun County and never paid it, Sheri Hill has your number. Or she's working very hard to get it.

"I've got thousands of names," said Hill, a restitution recovery clerk in the Calhoun County District Attorney's office.

Hill is one of three clerks who spend their time looking for current and former Calhoun County residents who owe fines and court fees. A 20-year list of delinquent payers fills several binders in her office. Some blew off traffic tickets or parking fines; others never paid court-ordered restitution to crime victims; some owe the state for their court-appointed lawyers, which, in Alabama, don't come entirely free of charge.

Hill is about to get some major help from the state. Next month, court officials say, somewhere between 250 and 500 Calhoun County residents will be summoned to appear in court to pay or appeal their outstanding court fees. The court date, Oct. 2, is already set.

It's part of a state program, called the Restitution Recovery Initiative for Victims in Alabama, designed to help the state with its ongoing budget crunch.

Under the program, a handful of judges have been called out of retirement and are making the rounds of Alabama's judicial circuits. First, notices go out to people with outstanding court debt. If they don't pay the debt immediately, they'll have to appear before a judge and explain why.

The program has been going on for months in other circuits with little publicity, local officials say. And it's being done largely because the court system, and the state, needs money, local officials say.

"People in the Legislature are telling the court system that if they want to keep getting state funds, they need to do a better job of collecting on these debts," Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said.

Dealing with crisis: 10 percent is at least something

"We always hear about the woes of the General Fund," said Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. "We'll hear we're showing on the books $400 million in uncollected debt. How can we not try to collect that?"

As president pro tempore of the state Senate, Marsh often faces questions about how he'll deal with the Alabama's ongoing crisis in state funding.

The state's $1.8 billion General Fund budget — which pays for all state functions except schools — gets its money from various and sundry taxes which don’t add up very quickly. (Sales and income taxes, which accumulate faster in a good economy, go into the school budget.) But while the General Fund stays at more or less the same size, the cost of running a government has gone up over the years.

Two years ago, Alabama took $437 million from a state trust fund to shore up that budget. Next year that money runs out, and the Legislature could face a budget hole of $150 million or more.  

The state's courts have taken some of the brunt of Alabama's budget cutting. One of the last  Democrats in statewide office, Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, criticized the state for leaving the court system underfunded when she resigned in 2011. The current chief justice, Republican Roy Moore, has taken up the same cause, saying in letters and speeches that the court system has lost hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in state support in the last decade.

The state tried to fill the gap by getting more money out of the people in the court system itself. In 2012, lawmakers approved a raft of increased court fees designed to bring in an additional $20 million.

Actual revenues from the new fees fell short of $20 million, largely because courts typically collect only a fraction of the fees levied against defendants.

Marsh says he encouraged court officials to start the Restitution Recovery Initiative to get access to more of that money.

"I realize that getting all of the $400 million is unrealistic," he said. "But even 10 percent is $40 million."

Plan was devised in 2009 but delayed by costs

Putting delinquent payers in jail isn’t the goal of the program, said Barry Matson, deputy director of the Office of Prosecution Services.

Matson said the summons to court, by itself, encourages more people to come and pay their fines. Court officials can work out payment plans, he said. And fees have been waived for some people who were genuinely unable to pay.

Court officials came up with the plan in 2009, Matson said. It wasn't implemented because there was no money to get it started.

"We could have hired 10 people and bought new cars and computers, and we would have spent a half-million dollars in the first six months," he said.

Instead, after Marsh pressed the issue, court officials called in retired judges, assigned existing employees to the project, and acquired a few high-mileage cars from the Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Matson said judges are typically assigned court dates in nearby locations, so they won't have to be paid for an overnight stay.

Marsh said the program should bring in higher revenues not just in 2014, but in future years, as the courts put more emphasis on collecting fees.

"I think we're always trying to find ways to be more efficient," Marsh said of the program. "It's not an attempt to put people in jail. It's an attempt to balance our budget without a tax increase."

State faces challenges in collecting from the poor

Alabama’s move to collect unpaid court fees comes as the state faces increased scrutiny for the fines it does levy against defendants, particularly those who are simply too poor to pay.

The city of Harpersville shut down its municipal court system two years ago, after a circuit judge accused the city of running, in essence, a debtor's prison. Misdemeanor offenders were turned over to a private probation company, court documents indicate, and jailed when they were unable to keep paying down their court fees.

Childersburg found itself in the middle of a similar case last year. And in a settlement with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights law firm, Montgomery city officials agreed last week to stop jailing people who are unable to pay court fines.

Senate Minority Leader Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said that the state's court fees are blocking some ex-felons from re-entering society as productive citizens. Many enter the job market without a car, she said, and they can’t get their license back until they pay down their court debt.

"People who have these astronomical fees just can’t get on their feet," Figures said.

Figures said the state should let more ex-offenders do public service to pay off their debt, allowing them to keep more of their pay and get on their feet financially.

Officials in the Restitution Recovery Initiative program say they're open to doing that in the future.

"We want to work with community service," said Barry Matson, the deputy director of the Office of Prosecution Services, which runs the program. "But I don't think that's appropriate in every case."

Matson said it's important to keep in mind that everyone with a fine has either been found guilty or entered a guilty plea. Either way, they've told authorities, somewhere, that they intend to pay their fines and fees, he said.

"The goal isn't to send out a bunch of notices and then jail the people who don't show up," he said. "The goal is to get them to pay what they owe."

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