Judges, supervisors threaten jail to get fines paid

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 26, 2010

Some people might be going to jail to entice others to pay past-due Warren County Justice Court fines.

“When you pull out the steel bracelets, I guarantee you money will start coming in,” Central District Justice Court Judge James Jefferson said during a rare meeting between the county’s five supervisors and three justice court judges on Thursday.

No definite plan was set, but the officials agreed to try to determine if, on balance, spending money to incarcerate some who owe fines would encourage them and others to pay up or at least sign up for payment plans or perform community service.

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Another session between supervisors and judges was tentatively set in another three months.

Collections from court fines are projected to drop by about a fourth in circuit and justice courts compared to last year, according to trends tracked in a budget update earlier this week. That, plus about $3 million on the books in unpaid misdemeanor fines prompted the meeting.

“We’re not trying to commandeer justice court,” Board President Richard George said. “What we’re trying to do is offer support services, I guess you could say.”

In February 2009, supervisors hired a Natchez firm, Receivable Solutions Specialists, to try to collect amounts owed in fines and some past-due garbage fees. That effort has netted only a fraction and the board hinted the company won’t be handling any additional court fine accounts after this month.

A poor economy has hit local government income and prompted a series of actions, including considering employee furloughs and using distress warrants to collect past-due property taxes.

Northern District Justice Court Judge Eddie Woods said most payment plans require $100 to $300 monthly installments, and the court has to be realistic in setting and collecting fines. Southern District Justice Court Judge Jeff Crevitt agreed. “If you put somebody on an outrageous payment, you’re never going to see it,” Crevitt said.

 “The problem we have is $500 is all the money in the world to some people,” Woods said. “If somebody’s ordered to pay $300, I don’t see why somebody can’t come up with that — maybe I need to adjust my thinking because of the economy… but everybody’s got a cell phone. When they whip out that cell phone, I know they have $100 to pay.”

An amnesty program and community service to work off fines was put into place in November by the City of Vicksburg, where bench warrants were suspended for people who worked out payment arrangements or agreed to pick up trash or clean buildings. It has had some success.

For the county to have payment plans or work programs, officials said, payment options must be kept affordable and the sheriff’s department must agree to supervise community service, which the judges indicated would be a departure from the department’s current stance.

State law allows courts to order defendants to pay fines any of four ways — immediately, by installments, as a condition of probation or by requiring them to work on public property for public benefit under the direction of the sheriff for a specific number of hours.

Because the Warren County Jail remains full, if sentenced to jail, misdemeanor detainees most likely would be taken to Issaquena County, adding the cost of transportation to the per-day rate charged by the private detention center in Mayersville.

Thursday, officials said they also want to rearrange how money from fines, constable payments and special assessments is distributed. Currently, fines paid to county coffers often make up the final bits of the total amount paid by defendants, after constables and assessments to the state are paid.

Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com