Capitol Alert

California fails to collect billions in court-ordered debt

Police officers set up a DUI checkpoint at 5th and L streets near Downtown Plaza in August 2012.
Police officers set up a DUI checkpoint at 5th and L streets near Downtown Plaza in August 2012. Stuart Leavenworth

California government is missing out on collecting billions of dollars in fines, victim restitution and other court-ordered debts, with current law offering conflicting fiscal incentives for the mix of agencies charged with getting the money, according to a recent report by the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal experts.

Various fees and surcharges are tacked onto traffic violations. A $35 base fine for rolling through a stop sign, for example, becomes a $238 bill after different assessments, surcharges, and other fees are included. In criminal cases, a judge can order the offender to pay restitution to the victim as part of the sentence.

That’s where the system begins to bog down, according to this month’s report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Counties and courts take the lead on recovering the money, but the state gets most of it under current law. Also, current law encourages attempts to collect delinquent debt instead of easier-to-collect short-term debt that would produce more revenue, the report said.

The balance of outstanding court-ordered debt has grown, from about $6 billion in 2008-09 to an estimated $10.2 billion in 2011-12, even as total collections of court-ordered debt has increased from $1.4 billion in 2008-09 to $1.8 billion in 2011-12, according to the analyst’s office.

“Over the past decade, the Legislature, the judicial branch, counties, and other stakeholders have made a number of different changes intended to improve the court-ordered debt collection process,” the report reads. “While many of these actions have helped increase the amount of debt collected, additional improvements can be made to further improve the collection of court-ordered debt.”

The analyst’s office calls for an overhaul of the debt collection process. Lawmakers should put one branch of government – trial courts – in charge while improving oversight of debt collection programs. There also need to be more financial sweeteners to encourage agencies to put in the effort to collect debt, it suggests.

Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.