Electronic payments needed in justice court, BOS told

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 2, 2014

Automation just might come to Warren County government — perhaps in time to help the county board find a way to collect old and current misdemeanor fines.

Installing a credit card machine in justice court would provide some versatility in the way the court collects fines and be groundbreaking for the justice system overall, judges told supervisors Friday.

The talk came as the board mulled charts that showed collections from justice court in fiscal 2014 to date were on pace to be the lowest in 10 years.

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“We just need to get in the 21st century on this,” County Administrator John Smith said, who spoke in favor of getting credit card machines in the justice court clerk’s offices and other options. The board has already OK’d hiring an outside debt collector and coordinating a community service program with the Road Department so offenders can work off fines, a concept discussed previously but not implemented.

“We need to do that anywhere we can,” said Board President Bill Lauderdale after Smith’s comment, with the caveat the threat of jail time still be emphasized in misdemeanor cases.

Logs distributed as supervisors met with justice court judges Eddie Woods, Jeff Crevitt and James Jefferson showed collections this fiscal year were $196,880.51 through July 16, or a monthly average of about $23,162. At that pace, the total would reach $277,944, behind last year’s $308,162.38 and $11,000 less than fiscal 2012, the lowest amount of the past 12 years. Most common fines paid to the county in justice court are misdemeanor DUI and domestic violence cases and traffic offenses. Collections were also lagging in circuit court, where the $65,531.75 brought in through mid-July put the court on pace to be similarly behind for the decade.

Judges have cited the economy and hardships in finding employment for those finishing sentences for both major and minor offenses. Supervisors have said the judges simply aren’t doing their job.

“You’ve got to have multiple ways to do this,” Woods told the board, on the topic of credit card payments and alternatives to cash. “This is not a one-solution-fits-all situation.”

Justice court and both the chancery and circuit clerk’s offices do not have the capability to accept credit card payments. Implementing them in either office involves creating an administrative court fee policy or using an outside vendor to provide the hardware and software. The tax collector’s office has a credit card machine to accept payments

Conversely, credit cards may be used to pay fines in Vicksburg Municipal Court online, at www.vicksburgpayments.com. The city uses nCourt LLC to handle payments made online. Payments may also be made by phone, at 877-793-7925.

Woods used an example in support of credit card payments in justice court — that of a camera-generated traffic ticket from a municipal court in Dallas that his daughter incurred in Big D while in college and mailed to his law office.

“I wasn’t going to travel to Dallas to pay that,” Woods said. “I used a credit card.”

In May, Warren County supervisors hired Florida-based Pioneer Collection Services as a third-party debt collector for old fines, such as those assessed in justice court and for past-due garbage collection bills. All three judges have proposed a work program with the road crew, but that concept has bogged down over logistics issues with the department.

Besides low growth in property values, supervisors have also cited lagging court fines as a reason to delay pay raises in recent past budget negotiations. Under review by county supervisors is a $15.03 million spending plan that allows for 3 percent pay raises for all employees.

The board adopts its fiscal 2015 budget on Sept. 2.