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Millions of dollars in fines, costs and restitution from felony criminal cases are owed to circuit courts across Arkansas.

In some instances, the person who owes the money is dead or in prison.

In others, the people are felons who are having trouble finding jobs, said Larry Crane, the Pulaski County circuit and county clerk.

"If a man is a felon and can't support his family, how do you handle those fines and fees?" Crane said.

Historically, records of fines, fees and restitution owed to circuit courts have been kept in paper ledger books. Many felons are repeat offenders, making it sometimes difficult to keep track of payments they have made to the court from different criminal cases.

Since 2001, Arkansas has spent about $50 million to automate the state's court system. More than 9 million cases have been logged into the state's Contexte case-management computer system, according to a report the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts provided in February to Arkansas Legislative Audit.

But use of Contexte's accounting function -- which would help track fines, fees, restitution and payments -- has lagged, said Keith Caviness, staff attorney for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Fifty-four of Arkansas' 75 counties use Contexte in circuit court, but fewer than 20 percent of those circuit courts use even a portion of the accounting feature of the software, and that is mainly for e-filing purposes, Caviness said.

Crane said the accounting aspect of Contexte is "not state-of-the-art."

Ramona Wilson, the circuit clerk in Carroll County, said she is using Contexte for online case filing, but she's still searching for a better accounting software. Meanwhile, she keeps track of fines, fees and restitution in 11 ledger books, the way it was done a century ago.

Tim Holthoff, director of the Court Information Systems Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said Contexte may not be perfect, but "we got the best system that was available that we could afford at that time."

Holthoff prepared the February report for Legislative Audit.

Providing Contexte

The state provides Xerox's Contexte case-management software for free to the circuit clerks and will send technicians to help them get the system up and running. Circuit clerks can receive some state funding to help them automate their filing systems.

The Contexte program has two main parts -- online case filing and an accounting program.

Arkansas' Court Connect website, caseinfo.aoc.arkansas.gov, allows the public to view court documents filed by circuit clerks who have digitized documents through Contexte.

In some counties, however, notice of the filing is listed on Court Connect but viewing the document would require a trip to the courthouse.

Jimmy Cummings, the circuit and county clerk in Cleveland County, said his office spent $16,000 for new computers to run Contexte in the courthouse in Rison, then discovered there was another problem.

"I have Internet here, but it's not fast enough to upload images into Contexte," Cummings said.

Sharon Blount-Baker, the Crawford County circuit clerk, said her office spent $108,000 on hardware and to convert paper files to digital dating to the 1990s. Blount-Baker said she hated Contexte at first but likes it now.

"I think it's moving the state forward," she said.

Collecting debt

Caviness said automation of court records could make it easier to keep track of debt, but that doesn't necessarily translate to more money coming in.

"Automation would allow circuit court, and therefore a county, to grasp the sum of court-ordered money penalties owed by defendants and provides a useful tool for collection purposes," Caviness wrote in an email. "Automation alone will not help the collection of monies owed by imprisoned/jobless/deceased defendants."

Another problem is that circuit courts impose the fines, but the sheriff is the designated fine collector in most counties, Caviness said.

"Those two offices, if either or both is automated, do not share an integrated software," he said.

Holthoff said he doesn't know of a statewide software that would serve the purposes of circuit clerks and sheriffs offices.

Caviness said there is no statewide estimate of how much is owed in fines, fees and restitution. And courts don't report payments to his office, so Caviness has no statewide estimate on collections either.

Circuit clerks contacted for this article said they had no idea how much outstanding debt their counties had regarding fines, fees and restitution.

Tammy Hubble, accountant for the Craighead County sheriff's office, said $18,587,410 is owed to the circuit court in that county.

"And growing daily," she said. "We've had a lot of folks come in and pay it off during tax season, but for every person who came in and paid it off, we had five more go to court and get fined court costs and fees."

Some of the debt owed to Arkansas circuit courts dates from the 1980s.

Neighboring states

Holthoff said there are some fair criticisms of Contexte as a statewide case-management system, but Arkansas has benefited greatly by having the program. He said Arkansas has a non-unified court system, meaning courts in different counties can make many decisions independently of one another.

Neighboring states with similar court systems -- including Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas -- "haven't even attempted to do what Arkansas has done with a statewide case-management system," Holthoff said.

"Instead, every court is entirely on their own," he said.

Holthoff said the system in Arkansas is a slightly newer version of the same software system that has been deployed statewide in Missouri, which has more central authority because it has a unified judiciary.

"Other than Missouri, the citizens of Arkansas have unmatched access to court information compared to our other neighboring states," Holthoff said.

Statewide, uniform rules would help Arkansas, according to an issue paper from Arkansas Community Correction.

"The system is there -- many circuits are just not using it as participation is voluntary," said Sheila Sharp, director of Arkansas Community Correction. "However, in some areas, the sheriffs collect restitution, and they also have no automated system. Our parole and probation officers could help collect from offenders if we had access to automated data to know what is owed."

Senate bill

In February, state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, filed a bill that would have created a committee to "study the use, effectiveness, and cost of various automated fine, fee, and restitution systems used by different judicial districts." It also would have required all Arkansas circuit clerks to have electronic fine-assessment and collections by March 1, 2019.

King's Senate Bill 367 passed in the Senate but failed in the House on March 21.

Blount-Baker, who is second vice president of the Association of Arkansas Circuit Clerks, said the group opposed King's bill and lobbied legislators to vote against it.

"Our biggest concern, obviously, was with some of the smaller counties trying to get funding for it," she said. "It's just not there. ... I think Sen. King's bill has good intent. I just think we need to work with the committee he's wanting to form and figure out how to implement it."

State Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, who voted against King's bill, called it an "unfunded mandate."

King said former Carroll County Circuit Judge Gerald Kent Crow asked him to look into the issue of outstanding circuit court debt.

Crow said he was concerned because it was difficult to tell how much money was owed to the circuit court in Carroll County and he wondered if the circuit clerk was being aggressive enough in collections.

Wilson -- who as circuit clerk is the designated collector of fines, fees and restitution in the county -- said she doesn't have a current estimate on the outstanding debt. Estimates of money owed to Carroll County varied from $1.8 million to $3 million.

Ballinger cited Baxter County as an example of a county still keeping records in paper books, and managing to collect fines and fees owned to the circuit court.

Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery said he's aggressive about collecting fines, fees and restitution. His office has paid out $2.4 million in restitution in the past 12 years.

But Montgomery said he would automate those records if he could afford the $40,000 or so that it would cost. Currently, his office tracks fines, fees and restitution in 16 ledger books, each of which has at least 200 pages.

"I think we do a great job with the resources we have, but we don't have enough resources," Montgomery said. "If we were automated, I think we could do a better job."

The most effective way to get people to pay is suspending their driver's licenses, Montgomery said. But if the debtor needs to drive to get to work, that can be a problem, Crane said.

Conflicting pressure

Collection of circuit court fees, costs and restitution has been a problem statewide. But courts have received conflicting information about how aggressive they should be in their collection efforts.

In 2012, Arkansas Chief Justice Jim Hannah met with circuit judges from across the state and encouraged them to begin collecting outstanding debt.

The plan was part of a legislative mandate that increased fines and court fees, and pushed collections to bolster the state's Administration of Justice fund, which pays for public defenders, prosecuting attorneys, interpreters, court recorders and other essential personnel.

Then, last year, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Arkansas' legal community telling officials not to hound people who can't pay.

"Four years ago we were hammering 'You've got to collect more,'" Caviness said. "Now we're hearing, 'You've got to back off.'"

According to the March 14, 2016, letter from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, "Courts must not incarcerate a person for nonpayment of fines and fees without first conducting an indigency determination and establishing that the failure to pay was willful," and "Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants unable to pay fines and fees."

"Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape," according to the letter, which was signed by Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general, and Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice.

There are other benefits to digitization, according to Holthoff's report to Legislative Audit:

"Because the courthouses have been overflowing with paper, as the courts move to electronic case files and rely on the state to safely store and reliably deliver the court documents, there is a significant savings to the counties and cities both in the labor required to move paper and the cost to physically store case files."

Holthoff said there are no plans to replace Contexte within the next few years, but "we are actively engaged in determining what the next generation of our system will be."

The Administrative Office of the Courts is an agency within the judicial branch of government that works to support the state courts on behalf of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

SundayMonday on 04/02/2017

Print Headline: Even with software, tracking, collecting court fines, fees a problem

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