Iowa court debt approaches $732 million

Bills owed by criminals and traffic violators make up most of it


DES MOINES — Crime doesn’t pay and apparently many lawbreakers in Iowa don’t either.

Outstanding court debt owed by criminals, scofflaws and other violators stood at $731.9 million at the end of fiscal 2017 — a 410 percent increase from 20 years ago when the total was $143.4 million, the Legislative Services Agency reports.

The numbers, which have increased steadily, reflect what is owed to the state’s court system for items such as unpaid criminal judgments, civil fines or past-due parking tickets. They do not include debt such as restitution and money owed to counties, cities, or sheriffs.

Over half of the latest outstanding court debt total consists of fines and court costs. Criminal debt and traffic debt make up a large portion of the total at $524.4 million (72 percent) and $168.7 million (23 percent), respectively, according to the report.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, co-leader of the joint House-Senate justice systems budget subcommittee. “It’s just like any other business — it’s awful tough to collect old debts and so on.”

Some of the delinquent debt will never be collected. State law requires the obligations stay on the books for 60 years and some debtors have died, can’t be located or lack the ability to pay, court officials say. Also, debt is easiest to collect in the first two years of the assessment.

“Success in collecting fines and fees is driven more by the time period in which collection efforts commence rather than the entity doing the collection,” said Steve Davis, a spokesman for the Iowa Judicial Branch. “The sooner that payment plans are created and enforcement efforts begin, the higher the amount that is collected. The older the debt becomes, the less likely it is that the outstanding amount will be collected.”

Debt that is up to a year old accounts for $87.3 million, or 12 percent of the total, and debt 10 years or older accounts for $248.3 million, or 34 percent.

Yearly growth in outstanding debt — which saw double-digit percentage increases for most of the decade through fiscal 2007 — has slowed in recent years since the Iowa Legislature enlisted a private collection agency and county attorneys to assist in aggressively seeking to collect.

Fiscal 2015 saw the smallest yearly rise in the debt total since 1998 — a 1.6 percent increase representing a $10.7 million increase, followed by a 2.5 percent jump in fiscal 2016 that totaled $17 million, according to the agency’s report.

A Kansas City debt collection firm, which is allowed to charge a collection fee of up to 25 percent, has collected $49.4 million from the program’s inception in July 2011 through June 30, 2017. Also up to 63 counties are participating in a collection effort that allows them to keep a share of the proceeds with $23.9 million recouped in fiscal 2017 — $16.4 million was deposited with the state and $7.5 million was deposited with the counties.

“I’ve got to give the county attorneys a lot of credit for that,” said Worthan. “We hung a carrot out there for them and they went after it and they’ve been pretty successful at it.”

Iowa has tried amnesty programs and implemented sanctions to withhold driver’s licenses or professional licenses for non-payment of court debt, but experts note that such efforts take away a person’s means of making a living and the ability to pay debts. They are often expensive to administer as well.

”Probably the bigger piece of it is they get convicted of a traffic violation or a misdemeanor of some kind and the next thing you know, they’re gone. They’ve left the area, left the state possibly — then it gets very expensive to try to track those down and the cost-benefit ratio goes down pretty fast when those people have left the area,” Worthan said.

“If they’ve left the state, then you’ve got no leverage as far as registering their cars, getting their driver’s license renewed and those types of things,” he added. “We’re a mobile society and your leverage goes away pretty quickly when those people get out of state.”

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