Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Uncollected fines concern Walworth trustees
Municipal judge: Generating revenues not purpose of court

by Rob Ireland

November 24, 2011

WALWORTH — After six years, the village of Walworth's Municipal Court has failed to collect about $156,000 in fines.

Some village trustees believe that figure is far too high. As the Village Board struggles to balance its budget, trustees complained the uncollected fines were unacceptable.

During the Nov. 14 Village Board meeting, Trustee Patrick Hubertz said the solution to the problem will come in 2013, when voters have a chance to select a new municipal judge.

Municipal Judge John "Jay" Peterson said he was "very surprised" to hear that board members were concerned about the uncollected fines.

"When it comes to collections, that's not what the court is there for. It's not there for a way to generate money," Peterson said. "It's there for justice."

Before issuing a warrant for an unpaid fine, Peterson holds an indigency hearing to determine whether a defendant can afford the forfeiture.

"I have to make the finding that they are able to pay, and to do that, I need to talk to them about their financial situation," he said.

In today's economic times, many people who receive tickets are unable to immediately pay for them.

"Many people are living paycheck to paycheck and maybe they have to put all their money to feeding their kids and putting a roof over their heads," he said. "It would be unfair to take that and leave them without money for the basic necessitates they are taking care of."

If a defendant doesn't pay a fine, the judge can issue a warrant for their arrest.

Uncollected fines aren't an issue just in Walworth.

Most communities deal with them. Geneva Township Municipal Court Clerk Senta Hall said the township has about $125,000 in uncollected fines, which doesn't include defendants on payment plans.

In Lake Geneva, dating back to 1987, their municipal court hasn't collected about $454,000 in fines.

During that time, about $4.9 million in fines were ordered, which brings their uncollected rate to about 9 percent.

"This is a reasonable expected percentage under all circumstances surrounding our collection challenges, including but not limited to poverty, absconding, and perhaps simply the demise of these defendants," Lake Geneva Municipal Court Clerk Dee Crisman wrote in an e-mail.

In 20101, in the village of Walworth, the municipal court collected $156,103.

When a warrant is issued, the police can arrest the person and put them in the Walworth County Jail. If the defendant pays the fine, he or she can immediately be released.

However, if the defendant is unable to pay his or her fine, he or she will sit in the jail. For each day in jail, the defendant's fine is reduce by $50.

For every day an inmate sits in jail, the village of Walworth is charged, and, as Peterson pointed out, other county taxpayers also are paying for the inmate to stay in jail.

"Sitting in jail is a very unpleasant experience, if they have the ability to pay they will," he said.

Peterson said he will issue warrants when defendants don't show up for court and owe money.

However, he said every situation needs to be examined independently. If a defendant owes a small amount on a debt, and it they don't have the money immediately, he isn't likely to issue a warrant.

In an e-mail, Walworth Municipal Court Clerk Ellen Reddy said she has drafted a Court Policy Guideline to streamline the collection process. The new process allows for only one good cause hearing to determine whether the defendant needs more time to pay the fine.

Defendants also need to submit a Financial Statement to determine indigency. The defendants need to sign a payment plan that, if violated, automatically results in a warrant being issued, Reddy wrote.

Another challenge facing the Walworth Municipal Court is that it borders Illinois. If someone is fined in the village of Walworth, it is difficult to bring that person into court, to pay a fine.

However, if the person lives within Walworth County, the police can easily pick them up on a warrant.

Peterson said the Walworth Municipal Court isn't the only one that struggles in collecting fines.

"With the way the economy has been, we aren't the only people who have seen an increase in the number of people who can't pay," Peterson said. "Unfortunately, the way the economy has been, we have to use our best judgement and be fair in terms of collection practices."