But when fines rise too high, they cease to serve such beneficial functions. After increasing nearly every legislative session for decades, today Texas state and local governments are too reliant on fine income, reflexively preferring to mulct low-level traffic offenders than to boost taxes. "I think anything we can do that helps us make a perpetrator pay the bill rather than the taxpayers is good," said Randall County Criminal District Attorney James Farren in today's Amarillo Globe News ("County office to enforce fines," Jan. 9). That's a fine sound bite, but foolish and misguided public policy: especially with Class C offenders more than any other class of violator, the "perpetrators" ARE the taxpayers, so what's the damn difference?
The Globe News article reports that Randall County has enacted a new state-mandated program to boost fine collection, but neighboring Potter County believes increased fine enforcement wouldn't benefit their county, reported the Globe News:
The [Randall County collections] department started as a mandate by the state to enhance the money brought in from fines and fees, a percentage of which goes to the state.That's exactly right, and at a time when many Texas county jails are overcrowded with little respite in sight. Basically the new state policy has counties using their jails as a debtors' prisons, incarcerating people not because they're dangerous, but as maximum leverage for extracting money from Class C defendants. I'd not heard about this new state collections policy; I'll have to chase that sucker down, or maybe some reader knows something?
"Probably one third of what we collect goes to the state," Carter said.
Potter County will not be making the move for another year because it got a waiver from the state.
"That makes us just a collection agency for the state," said Potter County Judge Arthur Ware. "What happens if they don't pay? Put them in jail and hold them until they come up with the money at $45 a day to keep them?"
In any case, fine levels in Texas are out of control and everywhere contribute to jail overcrowding for precisely the reason identified by Potter County Judge -- defendants who otherwise would never be incarcerated are jailed at taxpayers' expense with zero benefit to public safety, just because they can't afford to pay.
I thought about this all not long ago when a college-age kid I know got a ticket for a Class C offense -- between the fine, court fees, fees to DPS, and the cost of a pretty-darn-worthless "class" she had to take (by her account it was disorganized and poorly taught), the whole thing cost around $550. She makes $7 per hour. If she were supporting herself that would be an impossible amount. Even with her parents' help, it's a strain.
But what happens to kids who don't have parents to backstop them? They just don't pay, then get picked up on warrants and inevitably wind up incarcerated on the taxpayers' dime. Who benefits then?
Even for folks who don't sit out petty sentences in jail, the cost of arresting, booking and processing people picked up on warrants for unpaid fines adds up given the volume of folks involved. It's really a huge waste of resources to use the criminal justice system as a giant debt collector -- beyond victim compensation, raising money shouldn't be a function of jails and courts. The Potter County judge prefers the old privatized system counties used before the new state mandate:
Currently, those fined are required to pay 40 percent at sentencing and the balance in 60 days.Using a private collection agency for fines makes a lot more sense than filling up jails with non-dangerous offenders just to increase government revenue. I've not written much before about questions surrounding Class C fines, but I find this trend extraordinarily misguided and not just a little disturbing.
"At the end of 60 days, they become delinquent and we can turn it over to a collection agency that tacks on a fee to the fine, and it costs the county nothing," Ware said.
The state will pay counties 10 percent of what the counties collect in return for the [new] service.
"They don't have to come up with the money for a collection department and they get 90 percent," Ware said.