New Law Focuses on the Collection of Court Costs, Fees, and Fines

By the Office of Court Administration

It is estimated that approximately $400 million in court-ordered costs, fees, and fines go uncollected in the state of Texas each year.

Collecting these funds is about more than lost revenue. These uncollected dollars represent many thousands of court orders, issued by judges and ignored by lawbreakers. Ultimately, the taxpayers and citizens of every community in the state pay the price for this breakdown in the criminal justice process. While the impact in terms of dollars is significant, the greater damage is inflicted by the erosion of our system of government from the loss of respect for judicial authority.

The state Office of Court Administration (OCA) became involved in the search for a solution to this issue in the mid-1990s. By the end of that decade the agency had adopted a court collections model based on a program used in Dallas County, which employs proactive, private sector techniques with great success. As of September 1, 2005, OCA has assisted with the development of collection programs in 50 counties and 17 cities. However, in most of the counties, the program does not serve all levels of court within the county (i.e., district, county, and justice courts). In FY 2004 those programs reporting both a pre-program and a post-program collection rate averaged a 91 percent increase in their collection rate (from an average pre-program collection rate of 33 percent to an average post-program collection rate of 63 percent), bringing in an additional $39 million in revenue.

During the most recent Regular Session, the Texas Legislature passed a measure that will make it more difficult for defendants to get away with not paying court costs, fees and fines in criminal cases.

The measure, Article 10 of Senate Bill 1863, will require cities with a population of 100,000 or more and counties with a population of 50,000 or more to implement a program to improve the collection of court costs, fees, and fines in criminal cases. All the courts in those jurisdictions (municipal courts, justice courts, county courts and district courts) that handle criminal cases are included.

Approximately half of the affected cities and counties must implement programs by April 1, 2006, and the remaining number must be implemented by April 1, 2007 (See implementation list [Excel file]).

To comply, the city or county must implement a program that has two components. The first component is designed to improve in-house collections and the second component is designed to improve the collection of balances more than 60 days past due. The in-house component must conform to the model developed by OCA. A city or county can comply in the collection of balances more than 60 days past due by entering into a contract with a private attorney or public or private vendor.

The bill requires the Comptroller of Public Accounts to determine pre-mandatory program collection rates for the cities and counties and to conduct periodic audits. Cities and counties found not to be in compliance will be penalized financially: they will not be able to retain a portion of certain fees they collect for the state until they are back in compliance.

In response to the new legislation OCA has developed a plan for the implementation of Article 10 of Senate Bill 1863. The plan includes dividing the state into implementation regions and staffing each region with a Regional Collections Specialist who will work with each affected city and county on compliance issues. A special regional meeting is planned for each region to introduce those in the area to their new Regional Collections Specialist and to begin working on implementation schedules. OCA has also been working with the Comptroller's office to coordinate implementation and compliance efforts.

Collection improvement programs have two major benefits. First, they encourage personal responsibility. According to the National Center for State Courts, "Lack of compliance in paying fines and fees denies a jurisdiction revenue and, more important, calls into question the authority and efficacy of the court and the justice system." Second, improving collections benefits both the local jurisdiction and the state of Texas. A portion of what is collected is remitted to the state to fund numerous worthwhile programs (e.g., compensation to victims of crime, criminal justice planning, and indigent defense). Most of the funds collected are retained locally and used to fund local programs such as courthouse security, court technology and records management, and to increase local general revenue.

OCA's model court collections program is a logical approach to the court compliance issue. In recent years, the program has been embraced by more and more cities and counties. This concept was not embraced voluntarily because it was easy. It was embraced because it works.

Additional information is available at the OCA website and new details will be posted there as they become available.