Franklin County clerk clears $1M in collections

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldDecember 28, 2012 

A decade after it took on the arduous task of going after convicted criminals for owed fines and court costs, the Franklin County Clerk's Office for the first time has surpassed $1 million in a year.

It didn't come as much surprise to Clerk Mike Killian, who has been watching the numbers creep up over the years. The office hit $800,000 in 2011, so he knew it was a high probability they'd break the million mark.

But what impresses him is that the numbers doubled in just four years.

In 2008, they brought in $583,470 in legal financial obligations on adult cases. The Franklin County office topped $1 million on Dec. 14, and had collected $1,023,346 as of Thursday.

Killian attributes the huge jump to his small collections team for working with people to keep current on their payments, so they avoid jail time and the possible loss of their job.

"It's in how we actually work with the defendants that's huge. We're like Mrs. Butterworth; we're so sweet," Killian said. "We would rather work with them than have them sit in jail for not making the total $100 payment. If they can pay anything, to actually make a payment on that fine, and keep them working."

It also has been beneficial to have one judicial officer in Benton-Franklin Superior Court assigned to the weekly legal financial obligations docket in each courthouse, Killian said.

That way, Court Commissioner Jerri Potts is familiar with the people before her -- sometimes the same defendants in both counties -- and can consider their history when deciding if jail time is necessary for failing to comply with payment orders.

The most recent 2012 total for Benton County was $2,601,864 collected as of Oct. 31, said Judy Tanner, collections supervisor in the Benton County Clerk's Office. She expects the office to hit the $3 million mark by year's end, and possibly exceed the $3,157,199 collected in 2011.

Benton County has more than twice the amount of debtors as Franklin County. In addition, their total includes restitution and a $100 yearly collection fee per case, while Killian's office separates that out.

But overall, the two Mid-Columbia counties are consistent leaders across the state for bringing in high amounts. The offices have been in the business of recovering this money for 10 years, since the Legislature decided to shift debt collections from the Department of Corrections to the counties.

When a person is convicted of a crime, their judgment can include a series of fees to pay back agencies involved at different levels in the judicial process.

The legal financial obligations cover everything from emergency response, drug cleanup or extradition costs to minimal fees for a court-appointed attorney, interpreter services, crime lab tests and a DNA sample if convicted of a felony. The judgment also includes a fine under state law, court costs and money to cover the victims' medical costs and property damage or loss.

Defendants are told to set up a payment schedule with the clerk's office, and to start paying down that debt as soon as they complete their jail or prison sentence.

The monthly amount is calculated based on a person's income and the source of that money, whether they have a regular job or receive unemployment, Social Security or state Department of Social and Health Services benefits.

For any crime committed after July 2000, the case remains under the court's jurisdiction until the debt is completely paid.

If the case is older, the court has 10 years to collect after the defendant's release from custody or their sentencing date, whichever one comes later. However, before that initial 10-year limit expires, Superior Court officials can extend the criminal judgment another decade.

For some people, a life of crime quickly adds up.

Franklin County clerks have been working older cases, a number of those going back to the late 1980s, with Benton County collecting back to the early 1990s.

Tanner said that's because some defendants went away to prison on long sentences and didn't start making payments until they were released, while others have ignored their payments and since gone to prison for other crimes. That is why some people can owe on a number of cases, with Tanner saying she's seen as high as 17 cases for one debtor.

"They continue to rack up their charges and continue to get more cases, and so consequently we never see the end," she said. "They're constantly going to prison on new stuff so a lot of the old stuff gets put on hold. Everything sits and waits until they get out. And then when they're out, we have to start collecting all the back stuff plus the new, so sometimes it's a vicious cycle."

The clerks offices are allowed to collect the $100 yearly "supervision fee" for doing this work for the state. That means if it takes a defendant five years to wrap up their payments, they can be charged $500.

Killian -- who had collected $232,000 in supervision fees as of mid-December -- said that covers two employees who are assigned full time to overseeing legal financial obligations. He said the caseload has grown so much he really needs three designated people on that job, but the rest of the collection money goes to the county's general fund.

Clerks say it is best to treat the legal financial obligations as a credit card and get them paid off immediately, or as soon as possible, because the state charges an interest rate of 1 percent a month, or 12 percent annually.

But they also recognize that it isn't so easy to get out from under their debt when the defendant owes an exorbitant amount or isn't bringing in much money each month.

Killian said his clerks will accept payment a few days past the due date so long as the person calls in ahead, "because life happens and sometimes you're short one month."

People who have fallen behind are given the option to make a payment or work out a deal and sign a new agreement with the clerks before a compliance hearing, but some simply refuse to pay. Those are the ones who end up before Commissioner Potts, with Franklin County's weekly docket having as many as 180 to 230 cases and Benton County up to 400.

And again, multiple cases can belong to one person. A recent Benton County docket had one defendant with six cases.

Occasionally, a defendant isn't in trouble for failing to pay, but their request to lower the payment amount was rejected by the clerks, so they ask the judge to consider their motion.

Tanner said there is an incentive for people "to do the right thing and take care of what they need to."

Once the principal amount on a collection case is paid in full, the defendant can approach the clerks and negotiate a deal on their remaining interest.

Tanner said even though it is a state law to collect the interest, the clerks have been given authorization to work something out, maybe cutting the owed amount in half, "which can be a great savings."

The offices especially will do this for people who have been trying and have made their payments consistently. This can come in handy around tax time when a lot of cases get paid off with refund money, she said.

Tanner was reminded recently of how important that can be to people trying to close out their cases. A week ago, she reduced the interest for a debtor to help him pay it off, and the man was so happy he left the office with a "Merry Christmas."

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com

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