June 23, 2021

Plan would standardize court costs and fines

first_img April 1, 2003 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Plan would standardize court costs and fines Senior EditorFlorida’s circuits and counties have adopted a variety of programs that oversee how mandated court costs and fines are imposed and then collected, bringing millions in extra revenues to the court system.But there’s no uniformity yet in how programs operate, and it’s difficult if not impossible to predict how a statewide program could be implemented and how much it might raise.The Florida House Select Committee on Article V examined collection of courts costs and fines at its March 11 meeting. It was part of the committee’s review on how the state can fulfill the 1998 constitutional mandate to have the state take over more funding of the trial courts by July 1, 2004.Like much else in the legislature’s Article V endeavors this year, lawmakers found themselves shadowboxing lace curtains. While they heard that programs have been successful in several counties and circuits, they also heard that spreading such efforts statewide will be difficult because of different capabilities and accounting standards among counties.Orange County Judge C. Jeffrey Arnold said the Ninth Circuit found in 1999 that only 7 percent of assessed fines and costs were being collected. So the circuit undertook a wide ranging program that included bringing those who owe into a collection court and other ways of reminding them, and since then more than 86 percent of what has been imposed has been collected, he said.“There’s a lot of money to be collected,” Arnold told the panel, adding a statewide program could help raise money needed to fund the courts.Collier County Clerk Dwight Brock said his clerk’s office has begun a program that includes a small amount of time from a county judge and five clerk positions, at a total cost of $250,000. For the past year, of $3.6 million imposed for costs and fines, $2.9 million was collected, he said, and of traffic charges, about $4.1 million of $4.57 million imposed was collected.“The success of the program is before you leave that courthouse, you have either paid, or signed a collection agreement and agreed to appear in collection court,” Brock said. “It’s not the collection court that has been the success per se, but that there has been somebody monitoring the program. . . and if they don’t pay, someone will be out trying to collect.”Representatives from several other jurisdictions talked about their programs, which included judges or hearing officers presiding at collection courts, use of collection agencies, and other techniques.Stan Morris, chief judge of the Eighth Circuit and vice chair of the Supreme Court’s Trial Court Budget Commission, said that one approach would not work statewide. “The imposition of a collection court in some of these counties would be very cumbersome and totally unnecessary,” he said. “Some judges run an enforcement docket. I think the differences have to be accommodated.”One of those differences is in capabilities. Morris said some circuit have computer systems capable of tracking cases and what costs have been collected. In the Eighth Circuit, he said he would have to assign a person to manually review the cases.One way the legislature could help the courts with costs and fines is to put them all on one place in the statutes, so judges can find them with less work. He added that judges are more than willing to impose fines and costs set by lawmakers, and in recent years have waived fees and costs in fewer and fewer cases. He said, however, that judges should retain some discretion on the assessments.Speakers also warned it will be impossible to collect many fines and costs from felony cases because the defendants wind up in jail, and won’t be able to pay much until they are released, if then.They also warned that while the counties are running the programs now, the state will either have to take over and given incentives to counties to continue the collection efforts, once most funding for trial courts shifts to the state in 15 months.Jim Dwyer, of the Auditor General’s office, told the committee that it was difficult to arrive at exact figures because clerks don’t use uniform accounting systems. He said one study showed about 17 percent of court costs that could be assessed were not, and about a fifth of that was due to clerical errors. The remainder, he said, was probably due to judicial discretion, but the study did not examine that in detail.Of the costs levied, Dwyer said about half were collected, but added, “There are no records being kept on what should be assessed and what was, and on what was assessed and what was collected. In a lot of locations, that information probably still isn’t available.”Committee Chair Holly Benson, R-Pensacola, asked Dwyer about a uniform chart of accounts prepared for the courts and if that was helping track costs.“There are fairly detailed accounts in the accounting process,” Dwyer replied, “but again we have inconsistencies in how that’s being implemented.”Benson said there is work on estimating how much money could be raised with a statewide system. There are no firm figures yet, she said, but “the number is staggering” and perhaps could pay for the costs of conflict public defenders the state will be picking up. Plan would standardize court costs and fineslast_img

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