So money is tight for the upcoming Knox County budget and there is even a move to get the County Commission more involved in budgets administered by other elected officials. What if you discovered there are millions of dollars owed the county taxpayers that isn’t being collected?
Every week, miscreants are hauled before Sessions Court judges and they are levied fines and court costs. A report by the National Center for State Courts reveals that millions of dollars aren’t being collected. The report says that, as of 2007, the back money owed Knox County totals $67 million. The figure is misleading because it is accumulated over years on end—no one ever writes off uncollectables—so the amount of money lost each year is hard to ascertain. That’s one of the problems.
Granted, many of these defendants do not have jobs or real assets, but they do find the money to pay lawyers, bail bondsmen, and cell phone bills for the phone to use to call their lawyers and bail bondsmen. The Criminal Court clerk, charged with collecting these fines and court costs, can also set up payment plans.
The NCSC study, and an exhaustive report prepared by the County Law Director’s Office in 2009, has several suggestions.
• The county needs one central collection agency for all courts that uses revoked probation, wage garnishments, and other collection methods to seriously go after the money owed. This function could be farmed out to a professional collection agency.
• A computer program should be used to keep track of every case, the amount owed, how long it’s been owed, and keep the pressure on in a timely manner. The amount of money owed should be kept current and the amount uncollected each year should be a real number, with years-old amounts written off the books.
• Defendants should be expected to pay the fine and court costs at the time of the sentence and the onus should be on them to demonstrate an inability to pay. Credit cards and automatic withdrawals from checking accounts should be routine. Regular payment schedules should be established and defendants should be made to adhere to them or face penalties.
The clerks could do a better job of collections, but the real hammer to collect these unpaid fines and court costs rests with the judges. State law requires payment be made and the money, in order, goes to state litigation tax, court costs, then fines. Failure to pay a fine is a violation of law and the judge can require payment or throw the debtor in jail. In other counties, judges call in defendants who have not paid fines and ask them to pay up or go to jail.
Knox County lawyers argue that you can’t imprison people for debt and argue that this procedure is unconstitutional. So Knox County clerks are left with filing a civil suit to collect the money, which is expensive and an iffy proposition.
It is also argued that Knox County’s jail is overcrowded and putting these people in jail is unworkable. However, one observer at a “pay court” in a neighboring county recalls that of 50 defendants ordered to jail, 47 of them paid the money and did not spend the night.
If the fine is the last to be paid and it hasn’t been paid, you aren’t sentencing defendants for debt, but for not complying with their sentence.
Sessions judges are elected and the clerks of the various courts are elected and there is no one in charge of the entire court system. Things fall between the cracks because there is no mechanism to set up and enforce a consistent collection system or to enforce collections.
You will recall a few years ago the judges were allowing continuance after continuance in cases, the backlog filling the jail as cases waited for disposition. U.S. District Judge James Jarvis, looking at jail overcrowding, called the judges in and read them the riot act and continuances declined precipitously.
But it took an outside authority to get the Knox County court system to do what it should. Something for the county’s mayor and Commission to consider.