Counties with populations of 50,000 or more will be asked a series of key questions regarding their collection efforts, thanks to the 79th Legislature’s Senate Bill 1863.
Article 10 of this bill applies to 54 counties, requiring them 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.
The programs must:
conform with a model developed by the Office of Court Administration (OCA) of the Texas Judicial System 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.
Affected counties will be audited for compliance by the Office of the Comptroller, and counties that do not meet the requirements may lose a percentage of fees collected.
The Nacogdoches County Commissioners Court responded to the statute by appointing a special committee, the Senate Bill 1863 Collections Committee, which in turn developed the Nacogdoches County Collections Improvement Program, said Justice of the Peace Donna Clayton, committee chairwoman.
“Our committee presented a policy and program that met the mandates,” said Clayton. The program and accompanying policy have been approved by the commissioners court and sent to the state.
A number of counties already have collection programs in place but will have to modify them to meet the mandate, said Chad Graff, regional collections specialist with the OCA. For example, some county programs did not include all of the courts, whereas the new program requires inclusion of district, county and justice courts.
“Some counties were not doing proactive collections whatsoever, so they had to start from ground zero to establish a program,” Graff said.
Nacogdoches County already had several measures in place, such as flagging the driver’s license renewals of those who owe money and using an outside vendor to collect delinquent fines and fees. The Nacogdoches County Collections Improvement Program incorporates all of the components required by SB1863 as provided by the OCA, Clayton said.
OCA Model Program Components
Staff or staff time dedicated to collection activities. This may include county or city employees or contractor employees.
Expectation that all court costs, fees and fines are generally due at the time of sentencing or pleading.
In most cases, defendants unable to pay in full on the day of sentencing or pleading are required to complete an application for extension of time to pay.
Application information is verified and evaluated to establish an appropriate payment plan for the defendant.
Payment terms are usually strict (e.g., 50 percent of the total amount due must be paid within 48 hours; 80 percent within 30 days; and 100 percent within 60 days).
Alternative enforcement options (e.g., community service) are available for those who do not qualify for a payment plan.
Defendants are closely monitored for compliance, and action is taken promptly for non-compliance. Actions include telephone contact, letter notification, and possible issuance of warrant.
A county or city may contract with a private attorney or a public or private vendor for the provision of collection services on delinquent cases (61-plus days), after in-house collection efforts are exhausted.
Application of statutorily permitted collection remedies, such as programs for non-renewal of driver’s license or vehicle registration.
Issue and serve warrants, as appropriate.
The statute required a portion of the counties to develop an improvement program by April 1, 2006; the remaining counties were given an April 1, 2007, deadline. (See implementation schedule, http://www.courts.state.tx.us/oca/collections/PriorityLists.xls.
While Nacogdoches County falls under the 2007 deadline, the county decided to move quickly, Clayton said.
“I’ve been in the counties, and I’ve seen the positive effect of collections programs on the counties,” Graff said. The primary focus of these programs is accountability.
“Accountability generates compliance,” he continued, “and compliance generates revenue.”
The statute requires every county and city to submit annual reports to the comptroller including updated program information.
Auditors from the Office of the Comptroller will use a series of questions during their initial compliance review including the following.
Is every court participating? (Compliance measure requires all courts to participate.)
Does this department/court have uniform written policies and procedures for the collection of criminal court costs, fees and fines?
Is there a minimum of one full-time staff person in this court/department whose priority job function is collection activities? (This may include county, city, or contract employees.) Compliance measure requires a minimum of one such individual.
Is there an expectation that all court costs, fees and fines are generally due at the time of sentencing or pleading?
If a defendant is unable to pay in full, does the court/department use a uniform application for extension of time to pay to determine the defendant’s ability to pay?
Is the information provided in the application verified prior to or at the time of the review? Verification is required for compliance measure.
Does the court/department conduct a one-on-one review of the application with the defendant to determine an appropriate payment plan for the defendant? Compliance measure requires a review of the application with the defendant within five days after submission.
Does this court/department generally have strict payment terms/goals for defendants unable to pay in full on the day of sentencing or pleading?
Is a collections staff person assigned to monitor compliance with payment agreements?
Is a phone call made by in-house staff to the defendant when a payment is not paid on the due date?
Is a delinquency notice sent by in-house staff to the defendant?
Is a pre-warrant phone call made and/or notice sent by in-house staff to the defendant when the defendant fails to respond to the collection efforts?
Is a warrant generally issued when a pre-warrant phone call or delinquency notice has failed to bring a satisfactory response?
Does this court/department use law enforcement officers to contact and/or serve warrants on defendants who have failed to make their payments?
Is a post-warrant phone call made and/or a notice sent if there has been no response from defendant after issuance of the warrant?
Does this court/department allow for alternative enforcement options, such as community service, for those who are unable to pay?
Does this court/department use statutorily permitted collection remedies at least for Class C misdemeanors?
Does this court/department use an outside vendor for collection activities after adjudication?
If this court/department does not use an outside vendor for seriously delinquent cases, does the department have a process for locating and pursuing seriously delinquent defendants?
Is this court/department reporting in the approved format to the Office of Court Administration updated information regarding the collections activity?
For more information on these compliance questions and on Senate Bill 1863, go to http://www.courts.state.tx.us/oca/collections/collections.asp.
Julie Anderson, Editor