Over the years, legislators have used tens of millions of dollars collected from criminals to fund a slew of projects, many with only the faintest connection to the courts. Texas judicial administrators estimate that 1 in every 3 dollars raised through such state fees is spent on projects outside the court system — a practice critics say amounts to an undeclared tax on the state's poor that might violate the law. Cities and counties whose courts raise much of the state money, meanwhile, complain that their courts are drastically underfunded.In the anti-tax, pro-spending atmosphere of the 21st century Texas Legislature, this practice has become essentially rampant, and from Dexheimer's reporting appears to have reached a tipping point: "the steadily accumulating costs, charges and fees have meant that the money the state collects from defendants has ballooned nearly 50 percent in the past five years." With inflation in the low single digits and unemployment high, that's a harsh combination.
Today, court costs pay for the rehabilitation of patients with head injuries. They fund research on obesity among minority children in Houston and cover the salaries of game wardens. They support three academic centers at state universities and after-school programs for kids. And they were used to pay a private company $2 million to install cameras along the Mexico border so citizen "virtual deputies" could watch online and report illegal crossings.
Last year, elected officials raided a $20 million pot collected from criminal defendants to pay for state employee pensions.
Thanks to such maneuvering, in Texas courts, a "DNA collection fee" does not necessarily pay for DNA tests, a "breath alcohol testing fee" does not always cover breath alcohol tests, and people judged guilty of victimless crimes contribute millions of dollars every year to "victims compensation."
"We have a ‘school crossing fee' that nobody — nobody — can tell me what comes of it," said state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.
Sunday, March 04, 2012
Criminal court fees skyrocketing as funds are diverted to non-court uses
When defendants pays a "DNA collection fee" as part of their court costs, one may not like it but at least one might suppose it goes to pay for DNA collection. Not necessarily, reports Eric Dexheimer at the Austin Statesman ("Hard up defendants pay as state siphons court fees for other uses," March 4) in an excellent extended story on the unhappy combination of excessive court costs for indigent defendants and the Legislature's penchant of raiding those funds for pet projects: