Collections Expert Touts Individual Approach
By Julie Anderson, Editor
Brazos County calls it “The Last Chance Letter.” While “last chance” sounds a bit ominous, what the county is actually doing is offering, albeit one final time, to help defendants help themselves.
When a defendant has a delinquent fine or fee that is 60 days or more past due, the Brazos County Collections Departments sends out a final notice before issuing a capias pro fine warrant. With this letter comes an affidavit asking the defendant if his or her financials have changed. If so, the recipient is encouraged to “contact the collections department so we can discuss further payment options.”
“I believe in working with each person,” declared Tanya Skinner, Brazos County Collections director. “Everyone is different; by this I mean pay scales, household bills, childcare, medical issues, etc.
“From this point we can either lower the payment plan for a couple of months, or go before the judge and ask the judge to assign community service to the defendants in lieu of paying the fees,” Skinner continued. Brazos County prefers to go this extra mile rather than issuing a capias pro fine warrant and costing the county money by having to serve the warrants and house the defendant for days, and sometimes months.
“We try different options,” Skinner shared. For example, if the defendant is willing to pay $10 for three months and then go back to the payment plan, “it pays in the long run…and then he or she is more willing to stay in contact and pay on a regular basis.”
If community service is the best option, Brazos County will plug defendants into Brazos County Road and Bridge, Brazos Food Bank, Brazos Valley African American Museum, Brazos Valley Council of Governments, Good Will, Habitat for Humanity or the Salvation Army.
When it comes to collections, Skinner actually wears two hats, serving not only Brazos County but a myriad of entities as president of the Governmental Collectors Association of Texas (GCAT), http://govcat.net/. As the leader of GCAT, Skinner is often asked for collections advice. Along with touting an individual approach to overdue collections, Skinner points collections departments to the Inmate Trust Fund Collection Program.
Brazos County began collecting from inmates in 2008, and since that time has brought in some $20,000-$25,000 from both incarcerated defendants and those on parole.
In 1995, section 501.014(e) of the Texas Government Code was enacted to provide a simplified way to withdraw funds from an offender’s Inmate Account (commissary account) to pay for the expenses listed in the statute, as explained by the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA). These expenses include child support, health care costs, court costs, fees, fines and restitution. Walker and Kerr counties pioneered the use of “Orders to Withdraw Funds from Inmates’ Accounts” to pay court costs, fees, and fines. Since then, the practice of collecting from Inmate Accounts has been widely adopted.
During 2006-2007, litigation ensued over the process used to withdraw funds for the payment of criminal court costs, fees, fines and restitution. During that time period, the use of Orders to Withdraw Funds to pay court costs, fees, fines and restitution was stopped by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) due to the litigation. The matter was finally resolved when the Court of Criminal Appeals determined in Johnson v. The Tenth Court of Appeals at Waco, 280 S.W.3d 866 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008), that the withdrawal of funds was a civil matter. The Supreme Court in Harrell v. State, 286 SW3d 315 (Tex. 2009)1 issued an opinion affirming the process of withdrawal by direct court order under section 501.014 of the Texas Government Code, without the necessity of a hearing prior to the withdrawal.
Detailed instructions regarding the implementation the Inmate Trust Fund Collection Program and contact information are available on the OCA website at http://www.courts.state.tx.us/oca/collections/list_instr.asp. In brief, the stages include:
Step One: Establish Contact with TDCJ
Step Two: Notify the Offender
Step Three: Send Order to Withdraw Funds and Judgment to TDCJ
Step Four: Confirm the Transaction
In addition, the following important questions are answered in detail on the website:
How much will be withdrawn from an offender’s Inmate Account?
If an offender is convicted in multiple cases and there are, as a result, separate judgments, is a separate withdrawal order required for each case?
Where does TDCJ send the checks?
Does the clerk need to send a copy of the original judgment with a new Order to Withdraw Funds when an offender is sent back to prison after his/her parole has been revoked?
Why did I receive one more payment when I sent an email to stop withdrawals?
Why did I receive a withdrawal from an offender for less than $1.00?
Can this process be used to withdraw funds from an offender’s local jail account?
Skinner said she welcomes questions from other counties regarding effective collections programs, including in-house programs and compliance with state statutes; Skinner can be reached at 979-361-4297.
In 2005, the 79th Texas Legislature addressed county collections via the passage of Senate Bill 1863 requiring counties of 50,000 or more to develop and implement a program to collect court costs, fees and fines imposed in criminal cases to include district, county and justice courts, unless granted a waiver (http://www.courts.state.tx.us/oca/collections/collections.asp).
Believing that a local option program would be more efficient, county representatives requested that the 82nd Legislature repeal the mandatory provisions, as indicated by House Bill 2949, said Jim Allison, general counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas. This bill passed, was signed by the governor, and was to become effective on Sept. 1, 2011. However, during the ensuing special session, conferees nullified the actions of the regular session and resurrected the mandated program.
The required provisions are:
conform with a model developed by the Office of Court Administration designed to improve in-house collections through application of best practices; and
improve collection of balances more than 60 days past due, which may be implemented by entering into a contract with a private attorney or public or private vendor. According to state law, a 30 percent fee can be assessed on a fine or fee, which is the firm’s payment for collection.
Upon passage of the 2005 legislation, Harris County met the collection improvement mandate by entering into a contract with Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, said Harris County Pct. 2-1 Justice of the Peace JoAnn Delgado
This usage of an outside collection firm assisted in the disposition of cases and collection of revenue, Delgado declared.
“In addition, the decision has meant further savings in the form of government resources,” she added.
When Anderson County Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Gary Thomas took office, he came to a quick realization: Letters from the court and constables’ offices were not effective in clearing accounts in his precinct. Within a short time of hiring a professional firm, Graves Humphries Stahl, Ltd. (GHS), “we started getting phone calls.
“I then signed on with the credit card pay with GHS, and collections really picked up,” Thomas reported. “It was the best move I ever made in clearing the docket and bringing in revenue for the county.”
Wichita County chose to outsource as an effort “to maximize our collection efforts,” explained Wichita County Pct. 1-2 Justice of the Peace Michael Little.
“We felt that even though we had our own collections department, this would enhance our ability to collect funds that were lawfully due,” Little continued.
The county contracted with Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott‚ LLP.
“We have exceeded all expectations regarding the amount of delinquent fines we were able to collect,” Little related. “This close working relationship ensures that our collection program meets state requirements and maximizes the collection of delinquent fines and fees owed to Wichita County.”
Since March 2005, all four Polk County justice of the peace courts and the county court at law have referred cases to McCreary, Veselka, Bragg & Allen, P.C., for delinquent fine and fee collections.
“They track down people all over the United States,” offered Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Darrell Longino. “I cannot explain why the defendants will not answer court notices, warrant letters, and local efforts to collect these past due accounts, but when they finally get a letter from McCreary, they start paying!”
In addition, as part of the contract, “we have online search ability to look at their live activity file,” Longino added.
Because state law allows these outside firms to assess a 30 percent fee on top of the fine, the county is not out any additional expense.
1Harrell v. State, 286 S.W.3d 315 (Tex. June 5, 2009) decision – “We hold an inmate is entitled to notice just as happened here (via copy of the order, or other notification, from the trial court) and an opportunity to be heard just as happened here (via motion made by the inmate)–but neither need occur before the funds are withdrawn. Moreover, appellate review should be by appeal, as in analogous civil post-judgment enforcement actions.”