Municipal and justice courts in the Golden Triangle tally millions of dollars worth of old, uncollected fines, but many of these courts are more aggressively seeking to reduce that number.
In Municipal Court, Columbus reports $826,000 in delinquent outstanding fines and assessments dating back to 2000, while Starkville reports $2.4 million in outstanding fines and assessments dating back to January 2009, the vast majority of which are delinquent. West Point reports about $253,000 in delinquent fines and assessments dating back to 2013. All of those numbers correspond with information each court had readily available through its most updated computer software.
These fines are associated with misdemeanor criminal citations and moving violations — such as speeding and no seatbelt tickets. The local government receives the entire amount of a collected fine, but the state assesses additional charges, or “assessments,” to each traffic or misdemeanor conviction that often double the amount of a ticket. The state turns back some of those assessments to the city or county, while others help pay for programs, like Golden Triangle Crime Stoppers.
In justice courts in the Golden Triangle, Lowndes County reported $2.5 million in delinquent fines and assessments on its books at the end of its last fiscal year (Sept. 30, 2014) while Clay County’s figure topped $1.3 million. Oktibbeha County justice court finished the last fiscal year with just more than $1 million in delinquent fines, but County Administrator Emily Garrard said that did not include the state assessments, which would roughly double the total owed.
‘When they hear the word ‘jail,’ we usually get the money’
Municipal and justice court administrators say they are pulling out all the legal stops to capture these owed fines, dedicating staff and sometimes contracting with outside firms to track down delinquent account holders.
Lowndes and Oktibbeha County contracted late last year with Pioneer Credit and Recovery for old fine collection, while Clay County uses Mississippi Court Collections. Starkville and West Point municipal courts use probation services to keep convicted offenders on track. Court administrators said the collector’s commission or probation service fee is added to the end of an offender’s fine, as well, meaning they don’t cut into the court’s share once collected.
State law also allows judges in these courts to suspend offenders’ driver’s licenses or send them to jail for failure to pay or follow other court orders. Those things help, according to Columbus municipal court administrator Wendy Blunt, but they don’t cover all the problems courts run into when trying to collect old fines.
Blunt said she has a clerk on staff who handles old fines back to 2000, while American Municipal Services tracks down the court’s older fines. The greatest challenge for collecting old fines, she said, is locating the people who owe.
“People move, people die and I think the biggest problem we have is having wrong addresses for people,” Blunt said. “We take the address off a person’s driver’s license most of the time. People Columbus will move four or five times and change their driver’s license once. That’s a major headache that we have to deal with.”
Blunt said those convicted of a moving violation or misdemeanor in court can pay in full on their court date or set up a payment plan with the judge with certain due dates. Offenders who lack means to pay fines can also enroll in a community work program, where they can work on public projects — such as picking up trash or mowing grass — and whittle away fines at a rate of $7.25 per hour.
If offenders fail to pay on time or show up for the work program, Blunt said the court gives them 10 days to “show cause” for that. If that doesn’t work, the judge can issue a contempt of court warrant for an offender’s arrest or suspend his or her driver’s license.
“Pressing works,” Blunt said. “When they hear the word ‘jail,’ we usually get the money by the due date. Now, do we like issuing warrants? No. Do we like seeing people being hauled off to jail in front of their kids? No. We hate to be the bad guy, but if you owe a fine, we have to be paid.”
Some people who slip through the cracks, she said, tend to resurface.
“The biggest thing that helps us is when people go get insurance and it comes up that their license is suspended. Then they come back to see us,” she said. “Sometimes they’ve just forgotten about it.”
‘Unfortunately, some people don’t care’
While some offenders struggle to remember to pay their fines, Starkville municipal court administrator Tony Rook said others thumb their noses at the process from the outset.
Rook said the Starkville court has “thousands” of outstanding warrants for people who failed to pay their tickets and simply didn’t show up for their court dates. Once held in contempt, those offenders could find their driver’s licenses suspended, too. That doesn’t deter everyone, though, according to Rook.
“Unfortunately, some people don’t care if they have a suspended driver’s license or outstanding warrants,” Rook said. “Could you drive on a suspended driver’s license and never pay your tickets? Yes. But if you want to be a productive member of society, you will eventually have to pay those tickets.”
Even those who come to court struggle sometimes to meet their obligations, Rook said. Just like in Columbus, Rook said Starkville’s court offers payment plans and, for those who qualify, a work program.
Starkville also uses two probation companies to monitor convicted offenders, monitoring whether they pay their fines on time and meet other court obligations as assigned — be it drug counseling, anger management or other court orders.
Those probation services have helped significantly helped, Rook said, estimating they had helped collect about $250,000 over the last five years. Also, the court began offering online payments a little more than a year and collected $90,000 through online payments in 2014.
Rook said he also dedicates staff to tracking unpaid accounts.
“We probably check, on average, 400 cases a week to see if anyone owes,” he said. “We spend an enormous amount of time researching old fines.”
The Lowndes and Oktibbeha County justice court administrators — Linder Erby and Nora Golliday, respectively — are hoping that Pioneer Credit and Recovery will help bring in more money once the company begins collecting in the spring. Right now, they said the company is gathering information and building a database for accounts it intends to pursue. Pioneer will receive 25 percent commission for in-state collections and 50 percent for out-of-state.
In Oktibbeha County, Golliday said Pioneer could tremendously impact a significant number of tickets to Mississippi State University students whose permanent residence is out-of-state.
“During football season, we get a lot of public drunk charges, fake IDs, things like that. Kids will act like kids.”
She said the sheriff’s department had pitched in to help find delinquent account holders since about 2011, but she said she welcomes the extra help from Pioneer.
“The sheriff’s department can only go so far,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but we need a group who can track all these people down.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.