Rise in court fees may help some offices at courthouse
by Elane Jones
Jul 06, 2012 | 2945 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A portion of a new law passed by the Alabama Legislature during its 2012 session, which increased court fees statewide in most civil and criminals cases, including traffic cases, will hopefully help the Walker County Courthouse and area municipal courts put some of their laid off employees back to work.

Walker County Circuit Clerk Susan Odom said the law, which is known as HB688, increased court cost in most cases. It also added a $35 filing fee on bonds executed in a criminal case that must be paid in advance, which took effect on June 1, and a bail bond fee of 3.5 percent of the face value of a bail bond that will have to be paid by the defendant upon conviction, which goes into effect Aug. 1.

“The additional fees on the bonds is something we’ve never done before, and it will make for a little more paperwork, but it’s what we do — collect fines and court cost,” Odom said. “This is just another one we will be receiving with a bond.”

Odom said the extra paperwork is nothing compared to the benefits the Walker County Circuit Clerk’s Office hopes to receive from the revenue that will be generated by the additional court costs and bond fees.

“The money generated by this new legislation will allow us to call back at least two of our laid-off workers,” Odom said. “So whatever extra work it puts on us, it is going to help someone get their job back.”

Odom said right now her office is short six to seven employees, which puts a huge burden on the employees who remain on the job.

“We’re struggling and doing the best we can with the staff we have, but it’s hard. Several of my employees volunteer their time to make sure we get the paperwork that comes through this office done on time,” she said. “They hate to leave paperwork on their desk so they will stay late a lot of times, without pay, to get it done. Hopefully we will be able to put some of our laid off workers back to work so we can do the job even more efficiently.”

Most clerk offices around the state have been operating at less than 50 percent of the required staffing levels as determined by the National Center for State Courts. Alabama representatives Mike Hill and Chris England sponsored this new legislation and the additional revenue generated by it will now prevent the layoff of an additional 500 employees from the state’s trial court system, Odom said.

Odom said she knows the increase in court fees will most likely put a burden on those who will be paying them, but hopefully it will allow her office to bring back more people so the work can be processed and completed in a more timely fashion.

“We answer to the public and people expect this work to be done on time, and hopefully this will give us a little bit of relief,” she said. “I know the additional fees will create a burden for some folks, and that’s sad. But it’s the reality of the way we live now. Usually it’s not the person who was arrested that’s paying these fines and fees, it’s mama or grandma.”

Odom said the bottom line to the extra fees was simple.

“If you do not want to have to pay court cost and fines, then don’t break the law,” Odom said. “You have an option here. You don’t have to pay this; simply don’t break the law.”

Docket fees will increase by $15 for small claims cases, $26 for traffic cases, $40 for criminal cases, and $45 for district and circuit civil cases, including domestic relations cases. Juvenile cases and child support cases have not been affected. Two dollars of the revenue collected in traffic cases will go to the Peace Officer’s Annuity Fund.

The increase in docket fees will be retained within the court system, with one-third being retained locally to be used by the clerk and presiding judge for local court administration purposes. The bail bond fees will be divided among the offices of the district attorney, sheriff and the state or municipal court clerk. And a portion of the fee will also go to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences and the state’s General Fund.

The Alabama Administrative Office of Courts issued a press release in June that indicated there hasn’t been a statewide court cost increase since 2004, and the revenue generated from that increase was earmarked for the General Fund and not the operation of the state’s court system.

Although, the new increase in court cost has left a number of people, like Odom, hopeful about the effects it will have, a number of the county sheriff’s across the state are having mixed feelings regarding the new increase, including Walker County Sheriff John Mark Tirey.

“Over half the sheriff’s in the state are not in favor of this. I understand the state has some financial problems, but many of my colleagues and I believe this is just a hidden tax that is being put on the citizens of this state,” Tirey said. “The reason I’m not particularly in favor of it, is because I think it will cause a bit of a hardship on the folks who are trying to get their kids, grandkids, brothers or sisters out of jail.”

Tirey said he was of the philosophy that criminals should pay their own way, but generally they don’t.

“It’s their families, who are out there struggling just to make ends meet, who wind up paying these fees,” Tirey said. “Nonetheless, this is the law and it’s on the books now, so we don’t have a choice but to abide by it.”

Tirey said the new up-front $35 filing fee on bonds is nonrefundable and must be paid by a check or money order, which has to be made out to the circuit clerk of the county in which you are attempting to get someone out of jail.

“This is not just in Walker County, but all 67 counties in Alabama,” Tirey said. “And the $35, it’s not refundable whether you go to court or not, and whether you’re found guilty or not.”