state government

Falling SC court fees, fines threaten state’s Justice Academy

Court fees and fines are falling off;are cities, counties playing fair?

abeam@thestate.comJanuary 9, 2013 

  • Criminal Justice Academy budget woes The S.C. Criminal Justice Academy gets nearly all of its funding from court fines and fees. But, as shown below, those fines and fees have been decreasing in recent years: 2009: $8.8 million 2010: $8.3 million 2011: $8.2 million 2012: $7.8 million SOURCE: S.C. Criminal Justice Academy

— State budget writers have a mystery to solve this year: Why is the state Criminal Justice Academy losing money?

Nearly all of the academy’s money comes from court fines and fees. But since 2009, the collection of those fines and fees has dropped 11 percent, translating into a more than $1 million budget cut for the state agency.

“We have to figure out how we are going to continue to fund the academy if these revenues don’t continue to come in,” said SLED Chief Mark Keel, who leads the Law Enforcement Training Council that oversees the Criminal Justice Academy.

The decrease has been so dramatic that state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said he will ask for a legislative audit to find out why the money is not coming in. Pitts is chairman of the House budget subcommittee that oversees the academy’s budget. The academy is scheduled to make its formal budget request for the state’s fiscal year that starts July 1 this morning.

Pitts said he suspects local governments are “circumventing the process,” and keeping fines and fees for themselves. But, he added, “In the long run, (that is) hurting themselves and costing the ability train (new officers) at the academy.”

Judge William Womble, executive director of the S.C. Summary Court Judges Association and a former Richland County magistrate, said the problem most likely is a declining number of court cases.

“I don’t think the judges around the state are changing their way of sentencing and the amount of fines they charge,” he said.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, blamed the recession. Courts can assess all the fines and fees they want, he said, but if people don’t have money, they cannot pay.

Rutherford, a defense attorney, said he saw a woman in court recently who has not paid her fines and fees in four years.

“She said, ‘I’ve been homeless. What do you want me to do?’ ” Rutherford said. “The judge said, ‘Putting you in jail will cost the state more money than we would collect in fines.’ ”

Whatever the reason that the fine-and-fee money is not coming in, the academy needs to find a solution, Keel said.

Lots of law enforcement agencies collect money from court fines and fees. But the Criminal Justice Academy is the only agency designed to be operated almost solely on fines and fees, meaning it is the most affected by the decrease.

The academy is the only authorized law enforcement training facility in South Carolina, according to its website. It trains all new police officers and helps current police officers keep their certifications up to date.

“We have to continue to fund the academy,” Keel said. “That’s a must.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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