Unpaid fines can be problem for courts and for violators

Saturday, August 8, 2015

L et me pose a problem for which I have yet to find a solution. And since the vast majority of you are smarter than me, maybe you have some thoughts.

In the aftermath of the fiasco in Ferguson, one single legislative action was taken. Activists are calling for many additional legislative solutions as well as massive reformation within the law enforcement community.

But for now, the Missouri Legislature approved a measure that would rein in the fines in municipal courts in Missouri.

Here's what happens.

A person is found guilty of a minor violation - property maintenance, speeding, shoplifting, etc. - and is fined in municipal court.

In an overwhelming number of those cases, the defendant fails to pay the fine in the prescribed time. So they are hauled back into court, admonished for their lack of action and fined again.

And sometimes, they once again fail to pay the fine, are hauled back into court, admonished one more time and fined again.

The cycle is all too familiar.

The courts and the legislature have found this system is abusive and is a substantial source of income in some municipalities, i.e. Ferguson. But more importantly, the current system does not work.

We have a somewhat similar situation in Sikeston, though let me quickly say that our municipal court is vastly different than the urban courts.

The amount of revenue from the municipal court here is literally a drop in the bucket in our city's budget unlike those in some other areas.

But the problem of unpaid fines, however, is somewhat similar.

Reading the municipal court news each week, I can't help but notice the volume of defendants who are called back into court for not paying a previous fine. And what do we do? We cite them with yet another fine.

I certainly don't blame the court because the additional fine is about the only option available to impress on defendants the importance of facing their obligations. Keep in mind always that these defendants were fined because somehow they broke the law.

But fining someone for not paying a fine seems counterintuitive.

Many people want to mandate community service for those who don't or can't pay their fines. But that opens a can of worms that just doesn't seem to work.

Community service in whatever form can bring about additional liabilities and the manpower required to track that community service is beyond burdensome.

So courts, including our own, rack up unpaid fines.

As I said in the beginning, I have yet to arrive at a solution. But I do recognize the problem.

Since the ones who fail to pay the fines are almost always on the lower end of the income ladder, this creates the inequity that is much debated.

Trying to wring more fine money from the poor will never work. But there has to be some form of consequence for those who defy the courts for whatever reason.

We highly commend our local municipal courts and the legal officials who conduct the city's business.

A fine is designed to impress on the defendant the error of their actions. In many cases, additional fines are not the answer.

But I remain clueless on what might work effectively and more fairly for those who face income challenges and run afoul of the law.

Perhaps you have a suggestion?

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