As the judicial branch challenges state budget cuts recently proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, some critics are saying the courts could do more to address a fiscal problem in their own house – about $7.5 billion in delinquent court-ordered debt.
The unpaid debts include fines and penalties imposed by the courts for traffic infractions and criminal offenses. Although courts now are collecting a greater percentage of the debts, the total delinquent debt has grown by $2 billion since the courts started reporting the amounts in the 2008-09 fiscal year.
An attorney representing private debt-collection companies urged the Judicial Council, the policymaking arm of the state courts, to create more incentives for local courts to aggressively pursue unpaid debts at the council's meeting last month.
Officials from the Administrative Office of the Courts stressed that only a small fraction of the collected debt actually goes to the courts and that it would not necessarily help offset the budget cuts courts are fighting. Many of the court fees are distributed to counties and the state, said Donna Hershkowitz, assistant director of the Administrative Office of the Courts' Office of Governmental Affairs.
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“There’s certainly an argument that if courts were receiving the money directly, they may have more of an incentive to collect,” she said.
Ray Tickner, chief financial officer for the Shasta County Superior Court, said his work for the county has helped offset some of the budget cuts in recent years and thinks his peers could do more. But he notes that there is little motivating courts to be aggressive about collecting debts.
“What I’ve always been an advocate for, but it’s fallen on deaf ears in Sacramento, is that you give courts some incentive other than just the recovery of their costs,” he said.
Shasta County has been particularly entrepreneurial about debt collection and is currently paid by five other counties – Yuba, Glenn, Sierra, Lassen and Colusa – to collect debt on their behalf.
By statute, counties are responsible for collecting court-ordered debt, but many enter into agreements that delegate the responsibility to courts.
Some of the $7.5 billion in unpaid debt is uncollectible and should be written off, said Maria Lira, a senior analyst in the Enhanced Collection Unit for the Judicial Council.
Stephen Munkelt, a defense attorney, agrees.
“Part of the problem is that we’re trying to put the financial cost of the system on the backs of the poor, who are already being disadvantaged by this system by losing jobs because they go to court, or go to jail, and not being able to get employment because they have a conviction,” said Munkelt, who was appointed by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to the Court-Ordered Debt Task Force.
The Administrative Office of the Courts does not have an estimate of how much of the debt is uncollectible.
In addition to budgetary issues, allowing debts to go uncollected diminishes public respect for rule of law, Jessica Sanora, senior manager of the Enhanced Collections Unit, wrote in a report released last year by the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Since 2004, the Administrative Office of the Courts has been engaged in a statewide initiative to improve the collection of fines, fees, penalties and assessments imposed by the courts, after former Chief Justice of California Ronald M. George declared court-ordered debt a priority for the judicial branch. The courts are currently running a pilot amnesty program that allows people with outstanding traffic tickets to satisfy their debts by paying 50 percent of the total amount due.
Several years ago, the Legislature established a task force to evaluate the existing structure for imposing and distributing criminal and traffic fines and fees, but progress has been slow, said Munkelt, the defense attorney serving on the task force. It has not met since May of last year.
Courts vary greatly in how effectively they collect debts. In the Bay Area, about $121 million of court-ordered debt was collected in the 2010-11 fiscal year. There are still about 2 million outstanding delinquent debt cases, totaling about about $1.1 billion in court-ordered fines, fees and assessments that have not been collected.
All Bay Area counties exceeded state benchmarks, with the exception of Contra Costa. The county fell just below the state's standard, which recommends that counties collect at least 31 percent of the total delinquent debt.
Santa Cruz and Modoc counties both lagged behind their peers in the measurements used by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley said this was because he opted not to write off debts that might be hard to collect until the county had made a good-faith effort to recoup the money owed.
Linda L. Ostoja, court executive officer of the Modoc County Superior Court, said the Administrative Office of the Courts' annual report doesn’t reflect mitigating factors. “Ninety percent of the court’s clientele are either unemployed or living on some sort of public assistance,” she said.