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YOUNGSTOWN MUNICIPAL COURT Clerk works to fine-tune fee collection



Published: Sun, July 1, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The clerk of court has several new methods in place to collect fines and costs and wants a collection agency to tackle the backlog.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Next to nothing has been done in 10 years to collect court fines and costs, and more than $1.1 million is owed, says Municipal Clerk of Court Sarah Brown-Clark.

Michiko Essad, a deputy clerk, handles the unpaid fees, a full-time job, Brown-Clark said. Last year, the clerk's office turned over to the city $258,961 in fines and costs.

Essad's work is much like that of skip-tracers -- those bounty hunters who find bail jumpers. Her duties include keeping track of those who owe, developing and monitoring payment plans, and processing garnishments and bank attachments.

Records of delinquent fines and costs, which totaled $1,127,279 when last checked, fill roughly 30 file drawers at the clerk's office.

Wrong assumption: Essad said many people assume, incorrectly, that they don't have to come to court with money to pay their fines. She doesn't have a firm number on how many people can pay and don't until forced, but she said it's higher than she first thought.

While Essad does the daily work, Brown-Clark wants AllianceOne, a collection agency based in Gig Harbor, Wash., to tackle case files older than 60 days. Some of those date to 1992. She has forwarded a contract to the law department and wants the agency to begin in September.

The company, she said, has an excellent reputation and success rate with clients that include municipal and county courts in Arizona, California, Washington and Oregon. It has proposed a pilot project here as a way of expanding in this area.

AllianceOne's fee is 25 percent, but the court doesn't lose out, because that fee is added onto the fines and costs, a penalty of sorts for late payment.

Aggressive action: Since taking office in January 2000, Brown-Clark has focused on ways to aggressively collect the fines and costs assessed each day by the court's three judges. The backlog, though, presented a challenge because collection of past-due accounts, once done by a local lawyer who contracted with the municipal court until late 1999, had been hit and miss, the clerk said.

"No one has done anything for about 10 years," she said. "The Ohio Revised Code says clerks collect the fines."

Aside from using AllianceOne, Brown-Clark wants to implement a few strategies she developed after visits to research other courts.

Block warrant: The first idea requires cooperation of the judges in the form of block warrants. These warrants would prohibit those who owe money to the court from renewing their driver's licenses or license plates until the full amount is paid.

She'd also like authorization from the judges to hold driver's licenses behind the clerk's counter until all fees are paid. Ravenna's municipal court, for example, does it that way and has a large sign over the clerk's counter advising of the practice.

Not long after she took office, Brown-Clark put in place a bond form she designed that allows her to deduct defendants' fines and costs before she returns their bond money. Defendants who forgo a bail-bondsman and post their own bond at municipal court, typically 10 percent of the actual amount, sign the form.

Over the years, municipal court defendants, many of them repeat offenders, have learned how to work the system, Brown-Clark said.

"I'm trying to rise above the previous reputation of the court," she said. "The reputation was you won't have to pay unless you're arrested again."

Even when arrested again, many multiple offenders have been able to skip out on paying their fines and costs. The ways and excuses seem endless, Brown-Clark said.

Essad said the excuses she hears the most are "I forgot" and "No one notified me that I owed."

Changes loom: Things are changing. Brown-Clark used Judge Elizabeth A. Kobly as an example of efficient collection practices.

When Judge Kobly gives a defendant 30 days to pay, for example, her court staff keeps track. If the money hasn't been paid in time, the judge issues an arrest warrant.

"I expect them to pay. I reach an agreement with these people," Judge Kobly said. "I warn them that they will be arrested if they don't pay."

Nonpayment of fines and costs is considered failure to comply with a court order.

Once arrested and back in her court, the defendants face jail time, anywhere from three to 10 days. They are, however, given one last chance to pay before going to jail, she said.

"They're told to come back with either a receipt or a toothbrush."

People who can pay but refuse to pay can be put in jail, which gives them $30 credit per day until the fines are paid, she said. If someone owes $90, for example, that's three days in jail.

Indigent people cannot be jailed for failure to pay fines, she said.

Sees benefits: Judge Kobly said tracking the fines herself helps out the probation department and clerk's office, both of which are overwhelmed with work. The judge, who took the bench last fall, said she has a tremendous success rate in collecting fines and costs. She has been compiling statistics and should have a report in the next few months that measures the success.

Her colleagues do it differently.

When Judges Robert P. Milich and Robert A. Douglas Jr. allow defendants time to pay fines and costs, they schedule show-cause hearings for the date the money is due. This requires the defendant to come back to court if he hasn't paid and explain why. If he's paid, the hearing is canceled.

Judges Milich and Douglas issue arrest warrants if the defendant still owes and fails to appear at the hearings.

Judge Kobly said it's her opinion that show-cause hearings are a strain on the court system.

Judge Milich said the hearings are a way of determining if someone considered indigent will remain so and the hearings also allow him to maintain continual control until the fines are paid. The judge said the hearings assist the clerk's office by letting them know when someone can't pay.

Their own ways: He said his method isn't that much different from the way Judge Kobly handles her fines. Each judge has his way of doing things, he said.

Judge Douglas said there are reasons people can't pay or don't pay. Rather than automatically arrest someone who hasn't paid, he said, he gives them the opportunity to explain their circumstances at the show-cause hearings.

meade@vindy.com




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