Local court officials are having trouble explaining why they’ve failed to collect nearly $100,000 from criminal defendants during the past four years.
Erie County public defender Jeff Whitacre raised the alarm last month, after learning some local courts rarely collect a state-mandated $25 fee from every defendant who requests a public defender.
And Whitacre has a big stake in the matter — about 80 percent of the outstanding fees would eventually be redistributed to his office.
“It would be interesting to know how much is out there that’s uncollected,” Whitacre said. “It could be a big funding stream.”
Defendants who requested public defenders in Sandusky Municipal Court and Erie County Common Pleas Court collectively owe more than half of all the delinquent fees owed in Erie County’s six courts, according to the Ohio Public Defender’s records.
While Sandusky Municipal Court has failed to collect the largest amount due — about $37,000 — the problems may be far greater in Erie County Common Pleas Court.
There, Erie County Clerk of Courts Barb Johnson hasn’t submitted a single report on the $25 fee since the state mandated the program in the fall of 2005.
Ohio legislators created the $25 Indigent Application Fee to bolster public defenders’ budgets at the state and county levels.
The state also requires every clerk of courts to submit monthly reports, detailing every case where the indigent application fee was waived by a judge or assessed, and whether it was paid.
Erie County leaders began implicating each other this past month, when Whitacre found that Johnson’s office has not only failed to collect most indigent application fees, but also failed to provide monthly reports to the state.
No reports, big problems
Johnson has not submitted such monthly or annual reports since the program started in 2005, said Terry Wilson, administrative assistant at the Ohio Public Defender’s office.
“The majority are sending the reports in and following the law,” Wilson said of clerks of courts in Ohio. “Some of them aren’t. And some are sending money, but they aren’t sending the reports.”
In local municipal courts, clerks have been sending the reports to the state, though they don’t always collect the money defendants owe.
In a working system, the chain of money goes like this:
The defendant pays the $25 fee to the clerk of courts office; the clerk submits the money to the county auditor; the auditor sends the fee to the state public defender’s office; the state public defender keeps $5, and returns the remaining $20 to the county it came from.
The money is then deposited into the county’s general fund, and the county typically allocates it to the local public defender.
When the whole process began in 2005, Wilson said she sent numerous memos to every clerk of courts in Ohio’s 88 counties.
The memos explained how the fees are collected, and how the monthly reports should be constructed.
Wilson said she contactedJohnson’s office last year and asked for reports on indigent application fees.
“I said to her at the time that we don’t have any reports from Erie County Common Pleas Court,” Wilson said. “She said she’d check into it and call me back. She then said there were no fees, so no reports.”
“I said, ‘That’s fine, but that’s not my understanding of the law,’” Wilson said. “Even if the fee was waived in every single case, you still have to report it.”
‘Are you kidding me?’
Last week, Whitacre asked Wilson’s office how much money his office has collected from indigent application fees.
“We have excessive workloads,” Whitacre said. “That’s common for every public defender’s office in the state. That’s what the purpose of this fee was — to hire more people to generate more funds to get those workloads down.”
Whitacre said the state told him Erie County hasn’t been submitting the reports. So he figured Barb Johnson wasn’t collecting the fees.
“It’s a huge problem,” Whitacre said. “I know the state has talked to her about it.”
On April 21, Whitacre sent an e-mail to Erie County judges and elected officials, asking them why the fee hasn’t been collected. The e-mails were obtained by the Sandusky Register through a public records request.
In a reply e-mail, Common Pleas Court Judge Tygh Tone said, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? These funds should be collected! The judges have signed entries ordering the fees for years.”
When first asked about the reports last week, Johnson said she was compiling them.
“As a matter of fact, I’m in the process of making a report for all the periods since (the law) came into effect,” Johnson said. “I’m drawing up a report for anyone who wants to see.”
Johnson later provided a breakdown on indigent application fees assessed annually in Erie County Common Pleas Court.
Her office has, in fact, been charging the fees in every case where a judge ordered it, Johnson said.
But there’s more.
According to the report she provided, Johnson’s office is also assessing indigent application fees in cases where the judges didn’t order it.
In 2007, for instance, 218 defendants were court-ordered to pay the $25 fee.
Johnson’s office assessed the fee on 233 defendants — an extra 15 cases.
Alms from the poor
Still, assessing fees and collecting fees are two different things.
Johnson said the Erie County Clerk of Courts office is not responsible for collecting indigent application fees from defendants.
“We’re not in the matter of forcing collections right now,” Johnson said.
So whose job is it?
“That’s the probation department,” Johnson said. “The probation department follows up.”
Karen Volz, Erie County Adult Probation’s chief probation officer, disagreed.
“We’re responsible for making (defendants) abide by their conditions,” Volz said. “One of their conditions is that they pay their court costs and fines, but they don’t pay them here. All payments go to the clerk of courts office.”
Volz said it’s up to Johnson to ensure court costs are paid.
Johnson disagreed. She said county judges are supposed to monitor the fees owed.
“There’s so many avenues in place for things to happen,” Johnson said. “You’d have to check with the judges to see if they know.”
In e-mails to Whitacre, the judges said they didn’t realize the fees weren’t always being collected. In many cases, they terminated a defendant’s probation without the fees being paid.
Indigent Application Fees: Uncollected balances in Erie County’s six courts since 2005
$37,053: Sandusky Municipal Court
$27,000 (estimate): Erie County Common Pleas Court
$13,908: Erie County Juvenile Court
$5,900: Huron Municipal Court
$5,495: Erie County Municipal Court
$1,300: Vermilion Municipal Court