In New Jersey, unpaid municipal court fines and fees total $246 million. Towns throughout the state are turning to collection agencies to bring in some of that money.
Forty-five New Jersey towns have applied to the state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for permission to institute a private collection program, according to the East Brunswick (N.J.) Sentinel. Permitted under state law since 2011, the program allows towns to contract with private firms to take over the local courts outstanding debt and attempt to collect through phone calls, letters and other methods.
Firms contracted by municipalities are allowed to add a surcharge of up to 22% on each collected debt, meaning their services essentially would be paid for by the debtors themselves, not the towns. Only a portion of the total debt can be returned to the towns, however, because court fines and fees must be shared with the county and state.
According to AOC spokeswoman Winnie Comfort, the $246 million in statewide debt comes from approximately 513,000 cases, most of which are related to traffic offenses.
Cities and towns that institute the collection program must first contract with a private firm and then submit the contract to the AOC, which verifies that the arrangement meets all federal and state collection laws. So far, 33 municipal contracts have been approved by the state, and 17 municipalities have implemented the program.
Officials from the various municipalities cite many reasons for the large amounts of debt that have built up - in some cases over the last two decades. Officials in Long Branch, N.J., for example, report that many fines are a result of tourists, who receive parking tickets and other minor traffic tickets, and then return home and forget about the offenses.
The court in Long Branch is owed more than $1.6 million. Other towns are owed more, including Woodbridge, N.J., where the municipal court has $3.9 million in outstanding fines, according to the Sentinel.