Court fines a problem for Adams County

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 3, 2000

Adams County Circuit Clerk M.L. &uot;Binkey&uot; Vines says he wants to help the county collect more than $1.2 million in overdue court payments. Vines says he was shocked to learn that since 1996, such a large amount of court costs, restitution costs, fines and attorneys’ fees have not been collected.

&uot;I don’t think it’s fair that the criminals run around and don’t pay their bills,&uot; Vines said.

He found out about the overdue bills two weeks ago and estimates the county’s general fund is due $255,000 in court costs and more than $1 million in fines, restitutions and attorneys’ fees from about 750 different cases. Most of these are felony cases, he said.

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&uot;If it continues to just ride, it’s robbing the county, and it’s not fair to the taxpayers,&uot; Vines said.

The money needs to be collected so it can go back into the general fund and offset the millage rate, he said.

The problem is not unique to Adams County, nor is it new to Adams County Circuit Court Judge Forrest &uot;Al&uot; Johnson.

Johnson said he sends out letters about three times a year giving people who owe money a chance to appear in court.

&uot;I try to do it just about every court term,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s just something we are constantly working at — trying to collect the ones&uot; that can be collected.

To help solve the problem, Vines said he contacted Adams County judges Johnson, Lillie Blackmon Sanders and John Hudson.

&uot;I think it’s something that needs to be done,&uot; Hudson said. &uot;It does take the effort for someone like the circuit clerk to get that done, and he’s doing that.&uot;

Vines said next week a letter will be mailed for each case. The letters ask individuals to come to court for a hearing and explain why they have not paid. They can often work out a payment plan, Johnson said.

The judge must also determine if an individual has the ability to pay.

&uot;Legally, I can’t do anything to anyone unless they are able to pay,&uot; Johnson said.

Sometimes people can work off fines through a local program, while others cannot pay because they are in jail, he said. If a person is on probation a probation officer often helps with collection.

Johnson said people on probation can also be sent to restitution centers to work off their fines.

Johnson said if people who owe money are on probation he will occasionally issue a bench warrant for their arrest. But usually, these people will have also violated other terms of their probation.

&uot;It would be rare for it just to be the money and nothing else,&uot; Johnson said.

He agrees a judge has to be involved in the collection process. &uot;The best thing the clerk can do for me is keep me informed of who hasn’t paid,&uot; he said.

Adams County is no different from many other counties in Mississippi with outstanding fines left uncollected on its books, said Charlie Brown, Adams County administrator.

&uot;We have a collection agency working on collecting the fines,&uot; Brown said.

Central Investigation & Collections Inc. of Long Beach signed a contract with Adams County and assesses a fee above and beyond the fine collected for their services.

&uot;They’ve been waiting on reports from Justice Court to begin the collection,&uot; he said. &uot;Now that the necessary reports have been delivered, Brown said he would be checking on the results.

Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Burnell Harris said his office understands the problem.

&uot;I sympathize with (Vines),&uot;&160;Harris said. &uot;It’s very difficult to collect those fines. It’s a problem with all the circuit clerks.&uot;

Although Vines doubts the county will be able to collect all the money, he said has already tried to collect some of it himself.

&uot;I made six phone calls (and) four have already come in and paid,&uot; he said.

Vines said it is important for the county to make felons pay their fines.

&uot;If they don’t pay, have they learned anything from being prosecuted?&uot; Vines said.

Judy Isbell contributed to this report.