House Bill 688, passed into law May 16, also levies new $35 fees on bail bonds and increases the face value of the bond amount a defendant must pay to get out of jail.
Legislators hailed the new fees as a way to prevent a catastrophe in the courts: The law saves 500 workers in courthouses across the state from losing their jobs next year and allays fears of funding cuts for the court system, according to lawmakers and state justice officials.
“If you use the court system, you’re going to pay the baggage,” said Rep. Mike Hill, R-Shelby County, the bill’s sponsor. The new court fees will generate an additional $9 million this fiscal year for the court system, financial documents show, and an estimated $36 million in each following fiscal year.
Still, local officials and bail bondsmen agree the law, which will take effect in early July, is an imperfect solution. The new fees are steep for people who struggle to pay the costs already associated with their cases, those court administrators and bail bond company owners say.
“It’s hard, because we hear the burden it places on these people … when they come into pay,” said Kim McCarson, deputy clerk for the Calhoun County Courthouse. “And I don’t know if the bill is going to provide the relief that we need.”
New fees, old collection problem
In July, the minimum cost of a speeding ticket in Calhoun County will jump to $272 from $246, McCarson said. That’s because, under the new law, people must pay an additional $26 in all traffic cases, save for parking violations.
In civil cases, people will pay fee increases of $45 in both circuit and district courts. Small claims cases will require new $15 filing fees. Meanwhile, criminal cases across circuit, district and municipal courts will cost an extra $40 each for defendants charged with offenses.
Other than the high cost of the new fees, local court officials primarily are concerned with collection issues. It’s already difficult to ensure residents who go through the system pay up, McCarson said. The lowest court fees currently start at $92 for small claims cases and go up from there.
“Just because that bill passed doesn’t mean it’s going to be a relief for the courts,” the deputy clerk said. “We don’t have a way of collecting it.”
Still, she and Calhoun County Clerk Ted Hooks both noted that the new law most likely will prevent them from having to lay off any more employees. The courthouse lost half of its staff this year as part of the 400 employees laid off around the state in the face of a $13.1 million budget cut.
“This statewide increase in court costs is necessary to keep the courts operating at current staffing levels,” agreed Dean Hartzog, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Courts, which supported House Bill 688. The AOC spokesman recognized the difficulty of collecting costs in criminal cases, which have high numbers of defendants who cannot afford to pay those fines and fees or don’t have to until they get out of prison.
“AOC has been, and will continue to analyze and study how these monies can be recovered,” Hartzog said in an email.
Bigger bail bonds
Those same criminal defendants who struggle to pay court fees will also have to come up with more money to be released from jail on bond once the provisions of the law kick in.
People charged with misdemeanor offense will pay between $100 and $450 more for bond, and those accused of felonies will be saddled with bonds between $150 and $750 higher than current amounts. In addition, the law imposes new $35 filing fees on bail bondsmen — costs that most agree will be transferred to their clients.
Owners of local bail businesses worry the new fees will hurt their companies, prevent people from paying to get out of jail and increase overcrowding at the Calhoun County Jail.
“Right now, it’s hard enough for people to come out with the money to pay like it is,” said Kenny Bunn of Kenny Bunn Bail Bonds. “It’s a hardship on the families to come up with more money.”
Bunn said he expects more people to stay in jail for longer as they wait for their court dates. And he thinks that will cause crowding issues at the jail facilities.
Attempts Wednesday to reach Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson were unsuccessful.
The Alabama Bail Bonding Association unsuccessfully lobbied against House Bill 688 before it passed, Bunn said. Now that it has, he expects some smaller bond companies to go out of business.
Mary Varner, owner of the Varner Bail Bonding, said her family-owned company could be one of those to go.
“I don’t think it’s fair. It’s going to affect the business and it’s going to affect the people too,” she said. “Someone has to eat up the fees.”
But someone also has to pay to keep the court system working, and the sponsor of House Bill 688 believes the new law has it figured out. If it works the way it is designed, funding for the courts will jump back to where it was in 2008, Hill said, around $151.2 million.
“And it won’t be paid by the general public,” Hill said. “It will be paid by the users of the systems.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.