Computers being upgraded to better track court fines

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 5, 2003

[09/05/03] Warren County computers are being upgraded to meet requirements for reporting income from fines, which accounts for about one in 18 dollars the county raises locally.

Of the nearly $9 million the county has budgeted to raise from local sources for its general fund during the next fiscal year, $510,000 is projected to come from fines and forfeitures.

That amount accounts for 5.7 percent of the $8,982,818 the county government expects to raise next fiscal year from local sources, including interest income. The balance of the $23,671,376 the county expects to receive during the year that begins Oct. 1 is to come from other sources, including the federal and state governments.

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Judges may impose fines as penalties for criminal convictions. They may also order convicts to pay court costs, victim restitution or assessments for other purposes, such as to defray the costs of the state crime laboratory. The circuit clerk’s office keeps records for collections and the uncollected balance as a whole, but remains without a computer system that can report on the assessments.

Instructions from the state auditor’s office are to have in place such a system, to be used for regular reporting to the state, by the end of October, Deputy Clerk Shelly Ashley-Palmertree said.

Records kept by the district attorney’s office show that, annually from 1994 until 2002, collections have averaged $335,954 on assessments of $508,576. During those years, $3,023,583 has been collected on assessments of $4,577,182, for an average collection rate of 66 percent and an uncollected balance of $1,553,599.

Such totals from before 1991 are not available, though they are handwritten in books in the circuit clerk’s office.

Payments are typically made on a monthly schedule, tracked by the probation officer for each case in coordination with the district attorney’s and circuit clerk’s offices.

When people fall too far behind in their fine-payment schedules, the district attorney’s office may petition a circuit court judge to revoke their suspended sentences. How far behind they must fall before such action is taken depends on the case, said Georgia Lynn, who tracks such payments for the district attorney’s office.

Programmers at Delta Computer Systems Inc. of Gulfport are working to meet an Oct. 31 target completion date of circuit clerk’s systems statewide, Ashley-Palmertree said. The company specializes in providing computer systems to county governments and is also used by the Warren County Chancery Clerk’s Office.

The change in the reporting requirement stems from changes recommended by the board that sets governmental accounting standards, said Rhuel Dickinson, director of technical assistance for the state auditor’s office.

“It’s a new way to do financial reporting,” Dickinson said. “It’s a pretty dramatic change over what we’ve done before.”

The changes will make financial reports from governments look more like those from businesses. The new statements will reflect, for example, the decrease from year to year in the value of government-owned equipment, Dickinson said. Such depreciation expense is not reflected on current statements, he added.

Also, the way the statements report income and expenses from different funds will be reorganized, adding “an additional viewpoint of the government body as a whole. It should give a clearer economic picture,” Dickinson said.