Officials: Fines ignored, unpaid

March 1, 2014 • Local News

City Council candidate for Ward 2, Caleb Grant spoke at the Federated Republican Women of Chaves County public forum held on Feb. 19. He revealed that there are nearly $1.2 million in fines outstanding from Municipal Court.

Grant told the Daily Record: “The police chief brought it up on Feb. 13 (at the last City Council meeting).”

Grant did investigations of his own, requesting the most current list of outstanding fines from Municipal Court records. “To be precise, there’s $1,148,627.50 owed to the city in unpaid fines.”

Variations in the figures illustrate that unpaid fines accrue daily.

“As of July 2013, there were $1,086,00 in outstanding fines (compared to the $1.2 million reported in February),” said City Councilor Jason Perry.

According to Grant, about $703,000 are 180 days past due. “Some date back to the 1980s,” he said.

His statistics come from a 141-page report, and of the 141 pages, 105 pages originated in the last five years, Grant said.

Municipal Court deals with low-level crime, while Magistrate and District Court deal with felony offices. Roswell Police Deputy Chief Brad McFadin explained that Municipal Court has jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes, such as traffic citations, possession of marijuana under an ounce, graffiti and criminal damage under $500, shoplifting and larceny under $250, and other thefts under $500.

“Repeat offenders are not being held accountable. They know [auth] they will be out in few hours. It’s a cycle. People need to be held accountable for their acts,” said Grant. “There have got be consequences. If there’s no accountability, then there’s a message that you can get away with it.”

One of the problems is that, if the original fine is not paid, further fines are issued by the court. Perry said the current system of fines added to fines is not working.

“They’re getting fined $300, then when they don’t pay, a $150 fine is added and then another $200. Mind you, I’m not saying everyone should go to jail. You have the granny who takes a medication and then misses a stop sign, but I would dare say the average offender offends 11 times before he (or she) goes through true corrective action.”

The figures come from a study completed by RPD Chief Phil Smith.

“We looked at 100 people. Forty percent went to jail. Six out of 10 did not. We looked at a sampling of 20, those not serving jail time.”

Going back two years, Smith found that offenders re-offended 11 times before they were incarcerated.

He acknowledges the study is not a comprehensive one. “Perhaps, if we looked at a wider base or went back for a longer time period, the results would have been different.”

Perry viewed the problem in terms of the budget; funds are allotted to house offenders. In 2013, the Council allotted $350,000 of the fiscal budget to the corrections fund.

He said $222,055.58 were paid out from the corrections fund, compared to the $350,000 budgeted.

“That means 36.5 percent of the budgeted corrections fund were not used.”

Perry said that the Council would never take money away, but no further funds would be added as long as they are not being used.

The most recent figures appear to indicate that more money is spent this year. He said $156,054 were used so far this year. “We’ve got four to five more months to go.”

In 2013, the Roswell Police Department answered 55,214 calls for service. Often, these calls and subsequent arrests are dealing with repeat offenders.

Smith explained: “Five percent of the criminals are responsible for 95 percent of the headaches and low level crime constitutes 83 percent of the calls.

Grant did a ride-along with the Street Crimes Unit. He was impressed with the recently re-formed department.

“They know the repeat offenders. He (Smith) is looking at it from the arrest side. I’m looking at it from the money side.”

The Council often wonders if the police department has enough officers, but Smith credits the turnover not to lack of pay, but to lack of support by the courts.

“How important and how valuable are the police officers in this city to ask them to repeat their efforts 11 times with the same offenders? How cost effective to the community?”

He takes a more hard line approach to the issue of jail. “Once they don’t pay the fines or do the community service, lock them up. You’re not going to force them to pay. When incarceration becomes a threat, they won’t blow off fines or community service.”

Collections is another issue. “Of the outstanding fines, $138,096 were collected. This money goes to pay municipal court secretarial staff and the rest went to reimburse the corrections fund. That means $378.34 a day collected went into the correction fund by those who were doing the offending,” Perry said.

No system exists to collect unpaid fines. Bench warrants for nonpayment can be issued for arrest. These meet with variable results.

The RPD issues 164 warrants every month and the majority are for failure to appear, failure to pay fines, or failure to comply with the conditions of probation and parole.

When it comes to collections, Perry said: “If we could just get a hold of those fines, it would pay to incarcerate offenders for 2.5 years (without adding to the budget).”

However in setting up a system of collection, the Council would have to look at what other communities are doing.

An alternative exists to stretch the corrections fund budget. CCDC estimates that it takes about $65 to keep a prisoner in their facility. The city has a contract with a facility in Texas. The contract was arranged by Judge Hector Penida. The cost per day is $33.

Smith said: “It costs half that amount to send them to Texas.”

The facility is three hours away, but the Spur facility transports the prisoners. It is more strict.

“As out of state prisoners, they aren’t allowed to receive visitors or have access to the canteen,” McFadin said.

Officials believe the Spur facility is an under utilized resource. All agree that the goal is to get offenders off the street. Grant described a cycle were petty offenders gain confidence when fines and community service can be ignored, graduating from misdemeanor to felony offenses. Smith spoke of the drain on officer morale and financial resources. Perry pointed to the fiscal perspective, saying simply that “something is wrong.”

All said that crime would drop if repeat offenders were held responsible for their crimes. According to Smith, if six people get off with fines, it has a knock on effect resulting in 66 crimes.

“I’m not trying to make trouble for anybody. I’m just trying to answer the questions from the Council and the people. Two questions: One, what to do about the crime rate and, two, do we have enough officers? People often ask why are criminals returned to the streets and why can’t we do anything about it. The police and the courts are separate. We produce our case. It is up to the courts to prosecute.”

It again comes down to quality of life issues. Perry said: “If we can stop misdemeanor offenses, how much better off would Roswell be?”

(No figures were available from Magistrate or District Courts.)

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