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Issues and Recommendations
Regarding The Structure Of
State Court Costs and Fees

INTRODUCTION

Upon conviction of a municipal ordinance, misdemeanor or felony, an offender must pay state and local court costs, fees and fines. These are established in various areas of state law, including the Code of Criminal Procedure, Transportation Code, Government Code, Local Government Code, Education Code, Health and Safety Code, Penal Code, and Family Code. In general, court costs fees and fines are imposed on criminal convictions, while some additional fees are imposed on civil actions, such as the filing of suits, the issuance of marriage licenses, and copies of birth certificates.

Court costs on criminal convictions are collected by municipal courts, justice of the peace (JP) courts, county courts, district courts, and community supervision and corrections departments, while civil fees are collected by the JP and county courts and district clerks. While local court costs, fees, and fines are retained by the city or county, state court costs and fees must be remitted to the Comptroller of Public Accounts for deposit into specific funds used to finance various state and local programs.

The structure of these state and local court costs, fees and fines is complex, and their administration has become a time-consuming and complicated task for cities and counties, particularly those with limited resources. At present, municipalities are responsible for up to 20 state court costs, fees, and fines, and counties are responsible for up to 33 (Table 1). In fiscal 1999, municipal and county courts remitted about $185 million in state revenue from court costs, fees, and fines. About one-third of that amount came from county courts (JP, county and district courts); the remaining two-thirds was remitted by municipal courts, which handle municipal ordinances and Class C misdemeanors.

Cities and counties also may collect up to 30 additional local court costs, fees and fines, many of which are assessed according to specific guidelines and/or local option. As a result, a city or county may be responsible for collecting and allocating 30 to 40 different court costs, fees, and fines to multiple state and local funds for a single violation.

To report state court costs and fees to the Comptroller’s office, a city uses up to six different report forms, while a county may use up to 12. The number of forms required depends upon the types of court costs, fees, and fines they are responsible for collecting. (Examples of these report forms are shown in Exhibit I.)

BACKGROUND
Over the past ten years, the Texas Legislature has made changes to court costs, fees, and fines in every biennial session. A city or county with open cases several years old must keep track of applicable funds and appropriate rates from multiple periods. To track the appropriate funds and rates, cities and counties use up to six different charts to cover a ten-year period (Exhibit II).

The number of funds cities and counties must report to the state has risen significantly in the last ten years. For example, on September 1, 1989, there were only nine state funds for cities and 15 state funds for counties. During the next five legislative sessions, 11 new funds were added for cities, and 18 for counties. Between September 1, 1989 and September 1, 1999, cities’ reporting requirements rose from nine to 20 funds, and counties’ from 15 to 33 funds. Rates also increased multiple times. (Table 2 details these changes.)

Effective September 1, 1997, a Consolidated Court Cost was created that combined ten funds for reporting purposes.1 The funds remain separate, and the Comptroller’s office allocates revenue from the combined cost to the appropriate funds. This cost applies to offenses on or after September 1, 1997; all dockets with offense dates before September 1, 1997 remain under the previous rate structure. The benefits of the 1997 consolidation will increase as older cases are closed and payments are allocated to fewer funds.

Each time court costs, fees, and fines are added or changed, the changes can have a negative fiscal impact on cities, counties and the Comptroller’s office. These costs include expenditures for changes and updates to computer software programs, form revisions, training, and revisions to manuals, charts, and directives.

According to representatives of the Texas Court Clerks Association and the Texas Municipal Courts Association, other problems associated with the increasing number of court costs, fees, and fines include increases in:

  • the number of “not guilty” pleas and appeals, resulting in a higher caseload before the courts;

  • the number of “failure to appear” cases, and the number of warrants issued;

  • the number of requests for indigency hearings;

  • the number of requests for payment alternatives, including community service, payout plans, and jail stays, which in turn create a need for additional jail space and other costs associated with offenders who choose to “sit out their fines;” and

  • the number of clerical errors in the reporting of court costs, fees, and fines, often as a result of a new cost or cost increase being overlooked.2

Some judges have indicated that they are reluctant to impose a significant fine on top of sizeable court costs. Testimony indicates that some intentionally reduce the amount of the fine they would otherwise impose on a conviction because the court costs are so large.3 Since some fines are retained locally, while most court costs are remitted to the Comptroller’s office, the amount of revenue retained by cities and counties may decrease as a result of such actions.