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Commission looks to state for concrete figures in unpaid court fines

By Jonathan Pleasant
The Johnson County Board of Commissioners tackled some big issues last Tuesday night including a presentation and proposed resolution presented by District Public Defender Jeff Kelly. There is only one full time attorney currently representing the county out of the Public Defender’s office. There is an overwhelming demand placed on the office for the past few years as anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of all cases that are filed are asking for assistance because they are indigent.
Providing representation for those who cannot afford it is a legal right protected by the Constitution but the state only directly provides a certain level of funding. As a result, Kelly has had to make tough decisions about the placement of his staff and resources and has faced consistently lengthy dockets that sometimes continue well into the evening hours, a difficult situation for defendants and the plaintiffs alike. Because of this, the state authorized legislation a few years ago that would allow the county governments to add an extra fee on to currently existing court costs, excluding non-moving violations.
At $12.50, the extra funds would go directly toward hiring a local attorney to help with the caseload. Working on a part-time basis, the amount of funding coming in determines the total number of hours that the attorney could work, but Kelly was hopeful that enough could be generated to provide at least one full day each week. Both Washington and Carter Counties already collect the fees and have seen a dramatic speed up in their legal processes. Additionally, five percent of the $12.50 goes directly to the Circuit Court Clerk’s office to cover any costs associated with the extra paperwork. The fee’s amount is set by the state legislature and is governed by the Tennessee Public Defenders Association out of Nashville.
There were numerous questions from the commissioners, including requests for data involving the total number of cases in Johnson County and the total number of counties collecting the fee around the state. Kelly explained that the association does keep very detailed information, and would be willing to bring that information back at the next month’s meeting. With this in mind, Commissioner Jonathan Pleasant made the motion to table the resolution to provide time before a final decision will be made. The board did, however, make a motion concerning closing the courthouse on election day, a tradition that dates back many years even though it is not officially a holiday. Commissioner Bill Adams made the motion to approve the closure, which passed with 14 votes and one abstention.
While both of those issues were on the agenda, the Commission also discussed several items that were not slated for review. Commissioner Jack Proffit addressed County Attorney Bill Cockett with questions involving the issue of unpaid fines in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office. A subject that has been brought up since as far back as 2008, Proffit questioned the many guesses, estimates, and calculations that have ranged from millions of dollars down to the most recent information provided by Deputy Clerk Melissa Hollaway showing the county’s portion of the fines at just over $68,000. Because of the political nature of the issue and the widely varying figures that have been thrown around, there were several questions raised as to whether or not someone from outside the county, such as the state comptroller’s office, could look into the issue and finally bring some definite data concerning the total amounts owed. Cockett explained that technological limitations have made getting accurate figures difficult if not impossible until recently, but also acknowledged that new software in the office should be able to provide at least some of the answers that Proffit is seeking.
In hopes of gaining some concrete numbers, Proffit ultimately went on to make a motion to send a request to comptroller’s office to see if any information could be provided. Seconded by Commissioner Lester Dunn, the motion was approved unanimously. Mayor Larry Potter suggested inviting Circuit Court Clerk Carolyn Hawkins to the next commissioner’s meeting, which Proffit agreed was a good idea.
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.