By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
Cullman County circuit and district courts are adding a new docket to the court calendar — one intended to step up the repayment of victims’ restitution, court costs and fines for criminal defendants who have fallen behind.
The new Restitution and Cost Recovery docket will summon defendants who have failed to pay court-ordered moneys. Defendants who appear on the docket will be required to attend their date in court or face arrest.
The idea for the new docket stems from a long-running discussion among lawmakers and court officials about how to most effectively recoup outstanding money owed to both victims of crimes, as well as to the state.
Local court officials said Wednesday that millions of dollars are owed in Cullman County alone. The Restitution and Cost Recovery Docket is designed to provide a mechanism to recover some of that money.
Some legislators seeking ways to squeeze more value from Alabama’s declining court budgets have argued that, if the courts could recover even a fraction of the money owed the state by those who’ve been convicted and ordered to pay court costs, the court system could avoid the staff reductions and cutbacks in services of the past three years.
The local judges who agreed to establish the new Restitution and Cost Recovery docket said it would indeed be great for the courts to find “new” money simply by collecting what’s owed.
But, they added, the docket is set up to address the needs of crime victims first, before the courts recover a penny of state money from defendants. Under the plan agreed to by all of the judges, the victims of crime will receive their restitution to compensate them for the actual loss sustained as a result of criminal action before the costs and fines owed to the state are collected.
“Setting aside special days to seek recovery of restitution owed to victims in criminal cases is just as important as taking the time to try the original case,” said district judge Rusty Turner. “We want to do our part to see that victims are made whole.”
“The payment of restitution, court costs and fines resulting from a defendant’s wrongdoing is an obligation which must be enforced,” added circuit judge Williams. “It is patently unfair to victims and law-abiding citizens to leave them with the further injury of financial loss.”
The Restitution and Cost Recovery Docket will not focus on those who owe money from a civil judgment, nor, in most cases, on those who owe outstanding payments of alimony or child support. It will include defendants who have outstanding fines incurred from misdemeanor traffic offenses.
The first Restitution and Cost Recovery docket is set for February 22, and review dockets to monitor compliance will be held every three months thereafter. Criminal defendants who have not paid as previously ordered may appear at the special docket to set up monthly payments before warrants for their arrest are issued.
Cullman County circuit judges Greg Nicholas and Williams, along with district judges Kim Chaney and Turner, met last month to discuss ways to address the problem of delinquent payments.
In the past, attempts have been made to collect court-ordered money in individual cases, but the Restitution and Cost Recovery Docket will be the first concerted and sustained effort to achieve broad-based compliance. Each of the judges has committed to preside over the new docket on an alternating basis to monitor compliance with court ordered payments.
“Those individuals who have either pleaded guilty or been convicted of criminal offenses must be held accountable for their actions, and part of taking responsibility means paying, in full, all restitution, court costs and fines,” said Nicholas. “This is an opportunity for defendants to come to court, set up reasonable payments, and stop having to look over their shoulder for fear of incurring additional charges and fines.
Nicholas conceded that not all of the money owed by criminal defendants is collectable. While there are technically millions of dollars that should be paid, some of the money that remains on the books dates from court orders entered in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Many of those defendants previously ordered to pay restitution, court costs and fines are now deceased. Many others are serving prison sentences; some are indigent; some have gone underground and cannot be located. And, many are simply afraid to come forward for fear of being locked up because of their failure to pay,” Nicholas said.
“Despite the difficulty, we have a duty not only to the victims of crime but also to the taxpayers of this State to use our best efforts make sure that all court ordered money is paid. We are not expecting a lump sum, and we are willing to work with defendants who approach the court to begin making their court-ordered payments, so long as they’re making their best effort to ensure the money they do owe is paid.”
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.