More than $144,000 owed to Calhoun County crime victims, child support awardees and winners of lawsuits was handed over to the County Commission earlier this month, according to court documents and a state audit. Circuit court officials say they couldn’t locate the people who were supposed to get the money.
“We’re short-staffed, and takes so much time to find some of the harder-to-find people,” said Kim McCarson, Calhoun County’s circuit clerk.
As clerk, McCarson manages the finances of much of Calhoun County’s court system. A Feb. 2 audit by the state Examiners of Public Accounts found “numerous outstanding checks over five years old” written on the court system’s account.
McCarson says those checks are payments to people who are owed money by the courts, but simply couldn’t be found.
The bulk of the money, about $130,000, is money paid for criminal restitution. Since at least the early 1980s, the state has required people convicted of some crimes to pay their victims, particularly in crimes where property is stolen or damaged.
Collecting on that debt can be difficult, since inmates often don’t have money, and typically don’t make significant payments until after they’re released. McCarson said that in many cases, a business closes before a shoplifter or armed robber completes their sentence.
“You’d be surprised how hard it is to find Gregerson’s or Food World once they’ve moved on,” McCarson said. McCarson said Food World was in fact on the list of unpaid recipients of court money. The grocery chain’s Quintard Avenue store closed in 2000; the chain was sold to Bruno’s, which filed for bankruptcy shortly after the 2008 recession.
A smaller amount of the unpaid money, about $10,000, is from civil awards to people who won lawsuits. And $1,734 is child support never collected by the recipients. McCarson said some of the money is owed to people who had court fees or put up bond money that was later refunded.
Finding and paying those people isn’t just a Calhoun County problem. Neighboring Etowah County in December published a list of more than 300 people owed money by its courts.
“If a victim gets anything from restitution, it’s a miracle,” said Janette Grantham, director of Victims of Crime and Leniency, a victims’ rights group.
Grantham said victims wait for years to get paid back for medical bills and property damage. Some counties, she said, make little effort to track down victims beyond a phone call or letter.
“I’ve known some victims who get $2 every now and then, and some never get a cent,” Grantham said.
Grantham noted that the state Board of Pardons and Paroles — which by state law has to contact victims before considering a parole hearing — is typically able to reach crime victims, even years after the fact.
But that’s only after the state, in 2014, revamped its system for tracking and notifying victims. Before that, the state had a lengthy backlog.
Both McCarson and Etowah County Circuit Clerk Cassandra “Sam” Johnson said cutbacks to the court system over the years have trimmed back the time their staff can spend hunting down people who are owed money.
Some of the criminal cases on the Etowah County list date back to 1985. And some of the names on the list don’t seem that hard to find. Someone owes soft drink bottler Buffalo Rock $231. Rail giant CSX Transportation is owed $494. Several branches of Big B drugs, now owned by CVS, are on the list.
Etowah County Circuit Clerk Cassandra “Sam” Johnson said large companies often refuse to return calls about the unpaid money. Women’s names feature prominently on the list; Johnson said name changes make them hard to find over time.
Johnson last year decided to publish the names, in hopes people who are owed money would contact her.
“We’ve paid out about $55,000 since then,” she said.
McCarson said she’s considering releasing a list as well. She declined to release names on Monday, saying she wanted to review the list and make sure she wasn’t violating privacy rules. She said people who believe they’re owed money should call the court at 256-231-1750 and check.
Auditors didn’t criticize McCarson for failing to return the money, but for holding on to it for too long. Circuit clerks are supposed to turn over the money to county governments after five years – after which time the money is harder to collect. McCarson said her staff kept the money in hopes of finding more of the people who were owed cash. On Feb. 15, at the request of auditors, she turned it over to the county.
State auditors also criticized McCarson — and her father, former Circuit Clerk Eli Henderson — for failing to reconcile the bankbook for the clerk’s office with the accounts in the bank. McCarson said the errors added up to $6.35 over the three-year period of the audit. The office handled about $25 million over that time.
McCarson said she devoted a staffer to bookkeeping full-time as a result of the audit.
Brittany Parker, the auditor who produced the report, said Monday she wasn’t allowed to discuss audits with the public.