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April 7, 2009

States looking to capture fees through criminal justice systems

The New York Times has this interesting piece on real-world economics in some state courts.  The piece is headlined, "Pinched Courts Push to Collect Fees and Fines," and here is how it starts:

Valerie Gainous paid her debt to society, but almost went to jail because of a debt to Florida’s courts. In 1996, she was convicted of writing bad checks; she paid restitution, performed community service and thought she was finished with the criminal justice system. This year, however, she received a letter from Collections Court telling her that she was once again facing jail time — this time for failing to pay $240 in leftover court fees and fines, which she says she cannot afford.

Ms. Gainous has been caught up in the state’s exceptionally aggressive system to collect the court fines and fees that keep its judiciary system working. Judges themselves dun residents who have fallen behind in their payments, but unlike other creditors, they can throw debtors in jail — and they do, by the thousands.

As Florida’s budget has tightened with the economic crisis, efforts to step up the collections process have intensified, and court clerks say the pressure is on them to bring in every dollar. “I would say there is an even more dramatic focus on those funds now,” said Beth Allman, the spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Court Clerks.

Other states are intrigued by Florida’s success, and several, including Georgia and Michigan, have also cracked down on people who owe fines.  John Dew, the executive director of the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation, said that when he attended national conferences about fees collection, states were “really looking to what we’re doing in Florida.”

April 7, 2009 at 10:20 AM | Permalink


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Why shouldn't they do this? Criminals should pay court costs etc. I agree that it may be counterproductive to lock people up willy-nilly, but that money needs to be paid.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 7, 2009 11:55:39 AM

"I agree that it may be counterproductive to lock people up willy-nilly, but that money needs to be paid."

I've always wondered why courts did that instead of garnishing wages ( such as for child support ). After all, if you're in jail, you can't work to get money to pay.

Posted by: . | Apr 7, 2009 12:07:12 PM

Because the possibility of jail time tends to focus people . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Apr 7, 2009 12:09:31 PM

"Because the possibility of jail time tends to focus people . . . ."

Are they required to reimburse the jail stay? Because that might cost more than the fine. Ha!

Posted by: . | Apr 7, 2009 12:16:45 PM

Maybe so, but the issue is not the particular person being sent to jail, but others who will take notice . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Apr 7, 2009 12:19:05 PM

If convicted criminals should pay court costs, then courts should pay the legal fees of innocent defendants. If the idea of paying the fees of OJ's Dream Team is disturbing, then either do not bring the case or else improve the case.

Locally, an out of county motorist might get a $75 speeding ticket. Attached to the fine came a $2000 court and processing fee to pay for police time, record keeping, etc. A federal court declared the "processing fee" unconstitutional.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 7, 2009 1:32:21 PM

The states are looking under the sofa cushions for loose change. They have found what is called "aging court debt" (for example $150 per resident in Iowa) and they they are trying to collect some of that money.

In Iowa they have decided to try to collect money from those who have it instead of going after that that don't. They take the money for fines and fees out of the state tax refund. About 90% of the traffic fines are paid because you can't get a drivers license or register a car until you fines are either paid or the person has set up a payment plan. They also will allow payment of fines by doing community service in some cases. I guess some people think this is a big brother policy but I think it is better than jailing debtors (that is still done in cases where the judge thinks they can pay).

About 64% of the aging court debt is for criminal fines, court costs and surcharges and I think a substantial fraction is because they don't pay for their public defender. Public defenders are not free in Iowa but only 10% of their fees are paid by clients.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 7, 2009 2:27:39 PM

Criminals should have to pay court costs etc., plus, if they come into money, they should have to pay the public defender as well. This doesn't seem at all problematic to me.

Query: if your PD is found to have given you ineffective rep, do you still have to pay state for his retention?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 7, 2009 2:37:59 PM

Federalist. The problem here is why not extend this to all types of debts? Debtors Prison was once very common. The were sound policy reason why it was done away with. (1) Taking productive people out of society makes no sense when those people are no longer a threat to society. (2) Plead deterrence all you want but the notion that someone who is drunk driving is deterred, let alone even thinking about court fines, is silly.

But the most basic fundamental issue is that if we want security people should pay for it: the people who want the security that is. Security is not a natural right; it's something bought and paid for. That cost should fall on those who benefit for that security, i.e the "good citizens" of the community. If we don't want to pay for a criminal justice system, then lets get rid of it entirely. Or, as you so often say here, "hang 'em all". Frankly, I think that a sane society adopts neither approach. This woman already paid her debt by her time in jail. Now it's time for the good citizens of the community to fork over their fair share and fund the court system with their tax dollars.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 7, 2009 3:04:16 PM

Since only 10% pay their PD it is not possible to say if effective representation is a factor. If they are in prison and they have a prison job 80% of what they earn is distributed according to a priority list set by the legislature. Payment of a PD would be included under court costs so in theory the PD is paid are paid but in practice the yield is very low.

We have a means test for being assigned a PD but there is no means test for payment of fines and fees (nor is the likely to be one). If they are sleeping under a bridge they probably cannot pay but if they own a car and have a cell phone they probably can.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 7, 2009 3:07:35 PM

Daniel, first of all, you mischaracterize the issue. She has not paid her debt. She owes court costs, and she should pay them. Second of all, that deterrence doesn't work all of the time doesn't mean that it doesn't work some of the time. Third of all, why, as between a check forger and taxpayers, should taxpayers have to pay the $240 in court costs?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 7, 2009 3:38:42 PM

A person may have a job when they are arrested and jailed so they do not qualify for a PD, but if they are held for more than a few days they may no longer be employed and may then qualify for a PD. I did a study several years ago and found that the unemployment rate for probationers was twice normal and the corresponding ratio for parolees was four times normal and it is no surprise that parolees/probationers are the most common obligors as far as court debt is concerned.

The criminal justice system tends to lump developmentally disabled in with the mentally ill and both groups have very high unemployment rates and probably will be unwilling to pay fines and fees. Obviously one has to consider not only if they can pay now but if they can pay in the future. OTOH if they win the lottery that is a different story.

"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed..." OK that sounds good but what does "excessive" mean?

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 7, 2009 4:32:53 PM

federalist has the right of it as usual.

But because so many criminals are poor and stupid (the two usually go together), we are faced with the problem of making up the shortfall in fees from those who are too destitute even for aggressive collection efforts.

I would suggest raising the state payroll tax to compensate for that shortfall. That will focus the impact on the economic class where practically all of the criminals come from. Maybe then all the clock-watchers will be more inclined to watch their neighbors instead, making themselves useful and performing a civic service.

Posted by: fair_and_balanced | Apr 7, 2009 7:37:15 PM

Problem is that it's a vicious circle. Yes, people should pay their costs. But poor people can't pay. So the state never collects. But it does put those people in jail. Costing more money. Thus more costs imposed....

And so it goes.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 7, 2009 7:41:43 PM

Oh, I missed this one:

"Maybe so, but the issue is not the particular person being sent to jail, but others who will take notice . . . ."

Once again, federalist hits the nail on the head. Maybe we should institute a jail lottery for all registered Democrats (plus anyone who STILL hasn't scraped their moronic "HOPE" or "OBAMA" bumper stickers off yet)--since these are the morons who are bringing incipient socialism to our country and making great men like Thomas Paine roll over in their graves.

Posted by: fair_and_balanced | Apr 7, 2009 7:44:28 PM

Federalist wrote: "Third of all, why, as between a check forger and taxpayers, should taxpayers have to pay the $240 in court costs?"

Because they are the ones who allegedly want the court. The check forger could do without it. The reliance on the poor to pay for the infrastructure the privileged want is one reason the country is crumbling. Pay your own damn way.

Posted by: DK | Apr 7, 2009 9:05:27 PM

An additional cost that is seldom discussed occurs when the accused is a single parent with minor children. If the parent is jailed somebody has to take custody of the child or children and that can generate significant costs for the state. It is possible that jailing a single mom for a week for contempt because she did not pay $250 in court costs could generate $500 of new costs for the county and and $1,500 for the state.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 7, 2009 10:37:30 PM

But the law is fair, you see. It prohibits the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under a bridge.

Posted by: Mark#1 | Apr 7, 2009 10:51:31 PM


The full quote is:

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." (Anatole France)

Like federalist, and in the tradition (now lost) of great Frenchmen like de Tocqueville, M. France firmly grasped the moral turpitude manifested by the leeches of society who exchange entreprenurial spirit for parasitism on their fellow men.

Posted by: fair_and_balanced | Apr 8, 2009 12:39:26 AM

Always a pleasure seeing vigins write a manual on sexuality.

Posted by: throsso | Apr 8, 2009 1:27:41 PM

This has gotten way past bad guy fees and fines. The taxpaying public is taking the brunt of Florida's failure to budget with horrendous fines and fees for just about anything you can think of. It wont be long before the state taxes its citizens for having sex with their spouses. This state is out of control. In fact only in America can illegals commit sex crimes against children and have their housing paid for..the powers that be have lost their minds....

Posted by: Valigator | Jul 28, 2009 11:23:46 PM

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