Lawbreakers often struggle to pay fines

MARIETTA – Not only does crime not pay, but many times it costs a criminal cold, hard cash.

Last year, people convicted of traffic violations, misdemeanors, and felonies paid nearly $700,000 in fines to Marietta Municipal Court and Washington County Common Pleas Court.

Most fines are dictated by the Ohio Revised Code, but considerations for imposing fines vary greatly for municipal and common pleas courts.

In common pleas court, a defendant’s ability to pay a financial sanction is taken into consideration, said Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Ed Lane.

“The vast majority of criminals are indigent and don’t have assets,” explained Lane.

Some cases, such as drug felony cases, have minimum mandatory fines, ranging from $1,250 to $10,000, said Lane. However, to assess a fine judges have to find that the guilty party will have the ability to pay. Therefore, even mandatory fines are often waived, he said.

Often felony offenders with the ability to pay a fine have been convicted of theft or fraud, and therefore restitution to the victim is a greater concern, said Lane.

“In those cases, I’m more concerned about the assets going toward restitution. I’d rather see that money go back to the victim rather than the state,” he said.

Marietta Municipal Court Judge Janet Dyar Welch agreed that restitution is the most important financial obligation a defendant has once convicted.

“It’s right there in the statute. Making restitution is one of the purposes of sentencing,” she said.

But unlike in common pleas court, solvency is not considered in handing out fines in municipal court, said Welch.

“Fines are controlled by the state. They set out what fines have to be ordered,” she said.

Because indigent defendants are still assessed a fine in municipal court cases, Marietta Municipal Court ended up collecting vastly more in fines last year than did Washington County Common Pleas Court.

Washington County Common Pleas Court collected $9,045 in fines in 2012, said deputy clerk and bookkeeper Linda Farley. Most of those are collected from drug cases, she added.

In contrast, the Marietta Municipal Court collected $659,000 in fines, said Municipal Court Administrator Jason Hamilton.

“Fines are almost always imposed in municipal court and they are almost never imposed in common pleas,” noted Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Rings.

While inability to pay is one factor that keeps felony offenders from being given a fine, Rings also pointed out that felony offenders typically serve longer jail sentences.

“The fine is part of the punishment. If the court imposes a lengthy incarceration, they don’t usually double down and impose a fine as well,” he said.

In municipal court, fines are collected on all misdemeanor offenses, said Welch.

Under the Ohio Revised Code, misdemeanors include offenses such as disorderly conduct, domestic violence, petty theft, public intoxication, vandalism, some OVI charges and certain drug abuse and possession charges.

Both fines and court costs collected in Municipal Court are distributed among a vast array of accounts, said Welch.

Last year Municipal Court collected $172,000 for the court special projects fund. That fund is put toward paying off the cost of the new court facility and financing necessary upkeep, which saves city taxpayers from footing the bill, said Hamilton.

Municipal Court money also goes to the Ohio Victims of Crime Fund ($60,000), the City of Marietta ($227,300), and other county agencies ($447,000), which could include Belpre, Beverly, Lowell and New Matamoras police departments, said Hamilton.

Some money also goes toward an indigent defense fund, which helps pay for public defenders, he said.

However those examples just scratch the surface, said Hamilton.

Neither the judge nor the court has any say in determining where the fines end up, said Welch.

In fact, a variety of factors go into that determination. These could include how the offense is charged, who it is charged by and other special factors, she said.

For example, a portion of fines for hunting and fishing violations are given to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Fines collected in common pleas court are simply divided between two agencies, said Farley. Seventy percent goes to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and 30 percent goes to the Washington County Prosecutor’s Office, she said.

For people who absolutely can not pay their fines, the municipal court allows them to perform community service to pay off their debt, said Welch.

While the community service projects are not a source of revenue, they still benefit the city, said Hamilton.

There is also a portion of fines that go unpaid, he said, but that number is hard to assess. For some uncollected fines, the city uses a collection agency.

In 2012, the municipal court sent $285,000 worth of unpaid fines to a state approved collection agency, said Hamilton. That number represents well over half of the fines that go uncollected, he said.

However, that is not to say that all $285,000 went unpaid. Defendants sometimes work out payment schedules with the court even after the fines are sent to a collection agency, he said.

For those who ultimately do not pay, warrants can be issued, he said.

While it is no secret that fines help fund several organizations and projects, it is important to remember that the purpose of collecting fines is not to fill city, county, and state coffers, but rather to punish the criminal, said Welch.

“You are not supposed to look at offenders as if they are an ATM. You have to look at them based on the statute, and assess a fine that the state has determined is a reasonable punishment,” she said.