Who Knew? Millions Owed in Court Costs and Fines Needs Force of Law for Collection

I'm shocked to discover that there are millions of dollars in uncollected fines and court costs in Knox County. Well, not really. I wrote a column in April of 2011 about millions in uncollected fines and court costs, dating back years.

A National Center for State Courts study put the total at $67 million as of 2007 and it's only gotten worse since. The News Sentinel reports that the total has now reached $158 million.

The total is misleading because the amounts go back so many years. Some of the money is owed by people who are dead, out of state, or in prison for other crimes. There needs to be an accounting of the amount that is current or of recent vintage and a determined effort to collect.

It has been argued that criminals don't want to pay and that many defendants are indigent.

Yet these criminals are able to pay bail bondsmen and lawyers and for cell phones to call them. But no one is making them pay the court.

Considering how many years this has been going on, the neglect of a comprehensive program to collect this money is a scandal. It was happening before Joy McCroskey was ever elected to the office of Criminal Court Clerk.

In some counties in East Tennessee, the judges call non-payers back to court and order them to jail if the fines and court costs are not paid, or a payment schedule made. Knox County attorneys argue that you can't imprison someone for debt. The clerks are left with civil procedures to try and collect money owed.

Judges who threaten to jail convicted miscreants for non-payment are not threatening to jail them for debt. It's contempt of court if you agreed to pay a fine and court costs and you don't. Without the threat of jail time, the clerks have very little leverage to collect the money.

I'm not defending McCroskey. WBIR's Mike Donila is to be commended for his enterprise in bring to light errors by the office, especially cases where people have been wrongly jailed or kept in jail beyond their release date. There are also some questions about the hiring of a collection agent to try and deal with non-payers. A collection agency is a good first step in collecting some of this money. But without the force of the law, vested in the judges, it will remain an uphill battle.

The fact that all these court records are not computerized is a scandal in itself.

It has been argued that fines and court costs are levied in some cases because of overcrowding in the Knox County jail. Putting people in jail for non-payment would make overcrowding worse. But other counties find that the threat of jail produces payment of fines and court costs. Payment schedules can be arranged and the threat of jail time makes the payments arrive at the clerk's office.

Some attorneys say it is also too easy for a Knox County defendant to be declared indigent. In Sevier County, when a defendant cries indigent, the county does a credit and a property check to determine if the defendant has assets. That information can also help in the collection of money owed.

The late Criminal Court Clerk Martha Phillips gave long and valued service to the county and no one ever suggested she was not a good public servant. She spent her final months in office in an assisted living facility after suffering a stroke. But even under Phillips, over the years the clerk's office had a hard time staying current on collections.

Considering the millions of dollars involved it is hard to believe that Knox County can't come up with a better way of making collections and recovering this money for the taxpayers. The clerk's office can't do it alone, given its other duties.

Get better legislation passed if necessary. Make jail automatic if fines are not paid. Give the clerk the ability to issue criminal warrants. These collection problems need to be solved and it requires criminal penalties, not civil procedures.

If the lawyers and the bail bondsmen can get paid, then so should the taxpayers.