cuit Clerk Lisa Fallon settled into her newly elected position in late 2016, she assumed responsibility for managing a mountain of court transaction records.
Included was a largely undefined roster of unpaid fines and fees for crimes ranging from serious felonies to minor traffic violations and unpaid restitution for thefts and damages.
As her office attempted simultaneously to maintain ongoing case files and records, it became aware of an underlying collection of matters that had simply trickled and drifted away over no fewer than 30-plus years. They included nearly 1,400 criminal cases with unpaid fees, fines, restitutions and damages.
People had moved or simply decided to walk away from these obligations.
These were not civil cases between citizens.
A recent Chicago-Tribune article posed the idea that since Illinois is broke, counties are turning more and more to commercial collection agencies and firms to haul in unpaid fines as a way to compensate for diminishing state funds.
While this may be true in some respects, it is also true is that thousands of people across the state and nationwide have been brought to court, had cases heard, received decisions, and, at least here, signed agreements to do as the judge ordered.
And then for a multitude of reasons, they have reneged.
One example from Fallon was of a person now in Kentucky who has evaded a Monroe County court fine since 1985.
With a significant number of fees and fines simply not being paid, in recent years, many circuit clerks have turned to commercial collection firms or agencies to collect these amounts.
In February 2018, Monroe County signed up with Credit Collection Partners of Taylorville. A computer list of known outstanding fees, fines and restitution amounts and the identities of those owing them was turned over to this company.
The agreement was that CCP could add 30 percent (allowed under state law) of the unpaid balance as a fee for collecting the outstanding amount. The delinquent moneys collected would be turned over to Monroe County.
In 18 months, almost $60,000 has come to this county from CCP and been distributed to elements of the court system that would otherwise be paid by taxes or restored to citizens.
As this amount has come in, more old cases have been found and the number of outstanding unpaid charges has grown.
Fallon said that number had grown to 1,782 persons being pursued for payment by CCP, with an outstanding balance of $972,000.
“I especially want to collect restitution amounts for citizens,” Fallon said. “I ensure those checks go out first when we receive the amounts. Those amounts pay for criminal damages to individuals or businesses because of criminal activity,” she said.
Other amounts go to paying for court costs — such as salaries, paperwork, record storage and utilities.
“The state does not pay counties to operate courts,” Fallon said, noting there are changes coming to fees and fines being made in Springfield, impacts of which have not been fully digested.
Fallon cited staff size as a reason for turning to commercial collection.
Monroe County Assistant State’s Attorney Ryan Martin also noted this process is less complex than sending out a letter to show cause for failing to show up or pay fines and fees, followed by a bench warrant that then burdens the sheriff and having that warrant hang over people’s heads.
Fallon said she and office member Brenda Hempen track progress and make sure CCP is reaching out to non-paying persons across the spectrum.
The Chicago Tribune article reported instances in which collectors may have been unkind in their phone calls.
“They are obliged to voice record both sides of all calls, and I am able to listen to any I wish,” Fallon said. “If I don’t like something, I call their boss and we fix this.”
It is not unheard for collectors to get names confused or have wrong addresses.
But if anyone is being contacted by CCP and thinks they are wrong, they should ask for all the details and contact the circuit clerk’s office (939-8681, ext. 223) to verify the call is legitimate.
Fallon also said the collection firm is helping her correct and update records.
“They tell me if a person was found to be deceased. That record is closed out and dismissed,” she said. “We also learn if a person is incarcerated. If they are, they are unlikely to be making any payments at that time.”
In the end, Fallon, Hempen and Martin all agreed that unpaid judgments are like other debts. If you stop making car payments, your car is repossessed. Failing to pay a mortgage results in foreclosure. Not paying credit card amounts results in loss of credit and possible lawsuits.
Again — matters turned over to collection agencies are not civil suits. Those are between people and/or businesses or other entities. These are the results of breaking laws.
“And much of the amounts collected go to cover costs of operating our county courts,” Fallon concluded. “The people being sought are being sought to pay for things they have done, for which they have had their day in court, received judgments and signed an agreement before they left court. Should the rest of the county’s citizens be obliged to pay for these matters they were not part of?”
Fallon also noted some people are emerging to pay old outstanding fines and fees.
“Word may be getting around,” she said.