Program makes criminals pay

Now when an Island County Superior Court judge orders a convicted felon to pay restitution or court fines, it’s likely that the felon will actually pay it.

A year-old program in the County Clerk’s office is responsible for collecting about five times more money from convicted criminals than was taken in before the program began. The money goes partly to the county and the state, but mainly to victims of crime.

“It has been a travesty that there hasn’t been more attention paid to getting victims their money,” Island County Clerk Sharon Franzen said. “Before we established the program, defendants were literally thumbing their noses at the law because nobody was holding them accountable.”

In the first six months of this year, the collections program amassed more than $116,000. In all of 2003, convicts paid just over $36,000 in restitution, fines and fees.

When either adults or juveniles are convicted of a crime in Island County Superior Court, the judge almost always orders them to pay fines and fees, such as attorney’s fees or Crime Victims Compensation fees. In many cases, the judge also orders them to pay restitution to their victims, which may cover things like medical costs or the cost of a broken door.

The Department of Corrections used to be responsible for collecting money from people convicted of crimes, or at least urging those on community supervision, or “parole,” to pay. Franzen said getting people to pay wasn’t a top priority for the busy department, so many got away with not making payments.

Then budget-cutting Senate Bill 5990 passed two years ago. One of the many things it did was eliminate Department of Corrections supervision for a large portion of convicted felons.

In response, Franzen said the state Clerks Association decided that they would do a much better job of collecting the money. They lobbied the Legislature and got what they wanted. Court clerks receive a small sum from the state to run a collections program.

Last year, Franzen hired Jean Colby as the new collections clerk and together they created the collections program from the ground up.

“She’s tough but very fair,” Franzen said.

It’s a big program. The current case load is about 2,200 people.

Colby collects money in both new and old cases. Some of the people haven’t made any payments in many years, even decades, and they are very surprised to hear from the clerk’s office.

Colby can set up payment plans based on people’s financial information.

Colby’s main tool is the letter. She sends letters to people who haven’t been making their payments, stating that they need to make their obligations or they will be brought back to court. If they still don’t pay, then the clerk asks the prosecutor to ask the judge to order the person to court.

“It’s just a good judicial hammer,” Franzen said.

Sometimes it can be hard to find people. Colby, who used to work in the commercial collections industry, uses a variety of sources to find folks. There’s Internet “skip trace” sites, as well as good-old detective work.

While she believes in the program, Colby said she does have sympathy for the defendants. She said many of them get out of prison to find a mountain of debt.

“I feel a little sorry for them,” she said, “especially those who are on the island. It’s hard to find work if you’re a felon.”

Franzen said her goal is to make the program self-sustainable, or even profitable for the county. Currently, the program doesn’t bring in more money to the county than the program costs.

Under law, the money defendants pay must first go to toward victim restitution. Franzen predicts that defendants in the older cases will eventually pay off their restitution, and then the county can begin to receive its share of the fines and fees.

“It doesn’t pay for itself now, but I expects it will,” she said.

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