Monday, April 6, 2009
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. Earlier 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 her state’s exceptionally aggressive system to collect the court fines and fees that keep its judiciary system working. Judges themselves dun citizens 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 Michigan and Georgia, 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 attends national conferences about fees collection these days, states “are really looking to what we’re doing in Florida.”
With 44 states looking at 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.
Read full article here. [Brooks Holland]