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Pinched Courts Push to Bolster Budgets Through Fees and Fines

Valerie Gainous paid her debt to society, but almost went to jail because of a debt to Florida’s courts…

Published: April 7, 2009
The New York Times writes:   "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.”

With 44 states facing budget deficits totaling $90 billion this year, 25 state court systems already have budget shortfalls, said Dan Hall, the vice president of the National Center for State Courts. Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court told the American Bar Association in a recent speech that the state courts were in crisis because of budgetary and other issues.

States facing lower revenue from income and property taxes are taking action that includes court cutbacks and fee increases. Oregon will try to save $3.1 million by closing its courthouses every Friday for four months and cutting the pay of 1,800 court workers by 20 percent. New Hampshire began suspending civil and criminal jury trials in eight counties for a month, starting last December, and postponed filling seven of the state’s 59 vacant judgeships.

Massachusetts is looking to cut its court system budget by 7.5 percent, which will almost certainly mean staff cuts. Maine is no longer staffing the metal detector checkpoints at its local courthouses. Utah is looking at imposing an $8 “conviction fee” to pay for security and metal detectors; civil filing fees in the state will be raised as well. Florida has cut its court payroll by 10 percent, with more cuts expected.

Mr. Hall, of the courts organization, said that when states cut their judicial budgets, they “really cut deep into the fabric of our society” by causing delays of weeks or even months in resolving cases.

In Iowa, for example, where the courts are trying to make up for a $3.8 million budget cut, courthouses in every county will close for eight days between now and June 30, and travel budgets have been cut for judges who go from county to county to hear cases. This means delays for rural residents who have matters that have to be heard by a district judge, including divorce.

Access to efficient courts is essential to helping people resolve life’s crises, like foreclosures, debt collection, divorce and child support, said Rebecca Love Kourlis, the executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver. “You can’t put them on the back burner and say, ‘We’ll get back to you when we have more money and more staffing.’ ”

Advocates for the poor have urged other states not to follow Florida’s example of squeezing defendants harder to make up for budget cuts. Rebekah Diller, deputy director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said the state’s system wasted resources “to get blood from a stone.” Judges, she said, should not become “debt collectors in robes,” which she called both demeaning to the judges and humiliating for the people who must stand before them.

Rhode Island seems to agree. Faced with statistics showing that arrests for nonpayment cost far more than they bring in, the state passed a law in August granting judges latitude to waive court debts for poor defendants.

Florida, however, has continued to tighten its grip. Since 2004, the Legislature has required courts to support their operating expenses substantially, through fees collected by county clerks. Some of the clerks use collection agents, while about a third use the Collections Courts, state officials said. Here in Leon County alone, 839 people were arrested and jailed in the year ended last September over court debts or failure to appear at Collections Court, according to a study by the Brennan Center. Other Florida counties have less stringent policies . . . ."

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