In a growing number of cash-strapped Southern Illinois counties, state’s attorney’s offices are securing contracts with third-party collection agencies to pursue delinquent court fines and fees – sometimes for violations that occurred decades ago.
Alexander County, Ill., facing $1.6 million in debt, is the latest to do so. County officials have signed a deal with Taylorsville, Ill.-based Credit Collection Partners, which told the county it could be owed approximately $2 million in unpaid court fines and fees dating to at least 1986.
The collection agency, which has taken on collection services for more than 40 Illinois counties since 2013, will charge a 30% fee as allowed under Illinois law.
Many consumer advocates believe pursuing decades-old debt is fraught with problems - including paper trail errors - and that court fines and fees often disproportionately affect low-income residents who can't afford private attorneys to defend them in court.
Bill Schroeder, professor of law at Southern Illinois University's School of Law, and a criminal law expert, believes there should be a responsibility on the part of government agencies to collect fees in a timely manner, and if they have failed to do so, they should forfeit the right to collect. The idea that the legal system is seen as a revenue generator for governments is problematic, he believes. Becky Jansen, vice president of sales for Credit Collections Partners, said the company relies on individual county’s records to determine who owes and that she believes they are mostly accurate.
The initial reaction of a lot of people is to say they have paid, when in fact they have not, she said. Mistakes can happen in data entry but Jansen said the company will suspend the collection process to allow the person time to dispute the debt.
Alexander County Circuit Clerk Paul Jones said the county has been trying to come up with responsible ways to raise revenue at the request of county board members. Financial challenges have led to numerous layoffs of government workers including, reportedly, half the county's sheriff's deputies.
Jones suggested the collection agency idea to the county board, and state’s attorney, who must enter into the contract, after viewing a local news station report about another Illinois county receiving a "hefty check" in a public presentation from Credit Collection Partners.
Jones also said he is working with people who claim they’ve paid to see if a receipt can be located in paper files.