Raising Costs

There is one thing legislators love, and that is writing bills that seem like good ideas without actually doing homework to see if it is a good idea. The latest instance comes from Representative LaRoque, in House Bill 911. This bill proposes to raise criminal court costs by $10, with that $10 being credited to the Victims Compensation Fund. Sounds like a good idea. Where is the problem? The problem is in enforcement.

Only one month after House Bill 911 passed a vote in the House of Representatives for referral to the Committee on Finance, the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) released their audit of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), where the OSA audited Court Ordered Fines, Fees and Restitution. The audit was for cases resolved in 2008, and the audit was approximately two and a half years of research on the part of the OSA. The OSA limited the audit to traffic cases and cases resulting in unsupervised probation. The OSA estimates that in 2008 alone, approximately $40.1 million were lost to lack of coordinated collections procedures. The OSA acknowledges that this number could be wrong by as much as $20 million either way, and the numbers were not more accurate because of the seemingly disorganized methods for tracking how much money a defendant owed. The AOC agrees that updated technology would streamline the process, but disagreed that they could possibly collect any more than they currently do with existing methodology.

An interesting sidebar to this debate between the AOC and OSA- the AOC does not utilize their legal authority to “intercept” tax refunds to pay for outstanding fines and fees for defendants with traffic citations or cases resulting in unsupervised probation, but they will use that authority to pay for a court-appointed attorney to an indigent defendant.

It remains to be seen how much success this bill will meet with now. Of course one always wants to see money going to the Victims Compensation Fund, but does it make sense to raise the costs when current costs aren’t being collected? Better to get the money currently owed than raise the amounts that will be owed, which will likely raise the default rate, and result in less money collected for the victim’s fund and for the State in general.

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