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Nearly half the people owing money to courts in the past five years have not yet paid up.
Monday, July 15, 2013
In 1928, Corbin Glass incurred a $25 fine for violating a traffic ordinance in Lynchburg, with clerk and attorney fees totaling another $5.
The court records don't show Glass' age or the particulars of the charge, but they do contain one important piece of information: Glass paid only half of the $30 he owed.
He's a drop in the ever-increasing bucket of those who owe court-related money to Virginia localities and the state.
In Lynchburg alone, unpaid fines and costs on the books stretch back for decades and total about $13 million, according to the Virginia Supreme Court.
More than $19 million is owed to surrounding localities - for fines ranging from traffic tickets to felony convictions - in an escalating debt that court officials acknowledge never will be fully settled.
A recent report by the state Auditor of Public Accounts showed almost half of people owing money to the courts did not pay their fines and court costs over the past five years.
Compared to about $357 million in fines assessed per year, offenders pay only about $185 million, the report found.
Bedford County Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Krantz attributes a decline in fine payments to diminished economic conditions, combined with an increase in the number of fines handed down.
"More and more offenses now have fines associated with them," he said. "The amount of fines and costs being assessed is increasing at the same time that the people's ability to pay is decreasing."
Also, he said, "A large percent of your people charged court costs are indigent [unable to pay] to begin with."
Adding to that are the large fines sometimes levied in circuit courts - as happens occasionally in a high-profile murder trial, for example - that prosecutors know likely won't be paid.
Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Doucette said his office rarely pushes for hefty fines in circuit court cases - opting to use significant prison time as the main deterrent - knowing that large fines likely won't be paid.
Wesley Earnest, convicted of murder in the 2007 death of his wife, Jocelyn, faced a $100,000 fine after a jury convicted him in Bedford County in 2010.
But after that verdict was set aside due to a mistrial, a jury in Amherst County returned a guilty verdict later that year that didn't incorporate a fine.
While prosecutors may often decide to forgo fines in some circuit court cases, they are more common in district courts, which see misdemeanor and traffic cases.
Still, the amounts ordered in district courts don't come close to the possible fines for felonies.
The maximum fine allowable for a Class 1 misdemeanor by the Code of Virginia is $2,500, while fines for felonies don't max out until $100,000.
For local court officials, collecting delinquent fines and fees is a process that's handled in different ways.
In Lynchburg, unlike most other localities in Virginia, the Office of the Commonwealth's Attorney handles collections.
Nearly 100 localities - including Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell and Nelson counties - collect through the Virginia Department of Taxation, while close to 20 localities contract through private firms.
Lynchburg Circuit Court Clerk Eugene Wingfield said his office sees a steady stream of people coming in to pay old debts to the city or state, either to get licenses reinstated or rights restored.
"Most people know they owe us money," Wingfield said.
Some of those people have been delinquent on their fines for decades.
"We're going back and pulling cases pretty much from the '70s forward," he said.
Krantz said his office uses the Department of Taxation to collect its fees.
Without the personnel to dedicate to collection, Krantz said he believes using that department's services is the most efficient use of taxpayer money, as opposed to contracting with an outside agency, which might be able to bring in more money but would take a higher percentage of what's collected.
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