Decades Of Unpaid Court Fees Amount To Millions

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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Over the past 30-some years in Topeka, unpaid municipal court fines have added up to an astonishing amount of roughly $12 million.

Administrative Judge Vic Miller says that although that debt is not going away, it's doubtful the city will collect on it.

Topeka Municipal Court tries to collect fine money from about 600 cases a week during it's so-called "time to pay" docket days on Wednesdays and Fridays.

"What's gonna happen for those that don't show is one of two things or both. They'll get a bench warrent for not appearing and or their case goes to collection," he says.

The number of offenders - charged with misdemeanors from drug to DUI offenses - and don't show up to pay or are unable to pay adds up to that uncollected $12 million igure.

"A lot of people never will be able to pay. They just don't have the revenue stream," Miller says.

Unlike in private business, the city has no tax incentive to write off uncollectible debt - so that debt accumulates and stays on the books decade after decade - some 30 years in this case.

"We don't forgive debt. We expect you to pay it, even if it's 20 years later," he says.

Miller says the bulk of people fined do pay, but those that don't make up the bulk of the debt.

"There's a variety of offenses that you can trace it right back to fact that if they had the money, they probably would not have committed the offense," he explains.

Miller says he's just looking for a good faith effort to make payments and the court will work with people to get them to pay, even if it's over a period of decades.

He cited a case of a person paying a fine originally levied in in the nineties.

"Lack of income is one of the biggest reasons [for not paying]," Miller says. "A lot of people in the world don't have discretionary money to pay off a large fine."

"A lot of of people with a criminal past, they don't have money because their problem prevents them from being gainfully employed," he says.

Others may suffer from a mental illness or a disability, he adds. "They don't work, they can't work and their only income is a disability check that barely gets them by day to day. So when you throw fines and fees on top of it, they're unable to write you a check," he says.

It's a vicious cycle he, as a judge, can't solve.

"Here's my question. What problem are you trying to solve? The problem that people are alcoholics? The problem that people are addicts? The problem that people are mentally ill? The problem that people are impoverished? Or the problem that people are criminals? Or the problem that people are delinquent?" he asked. "I know I can't do anything close to that."

" My job, when I levy a fine is to collect it," he said. "I don't have the capacity or the tools to cure the problems of society."

A jail threat may get some people to pay, but Miller says it isn't effective for those who don't have the money.