If you have not noticed it, the penalty for breaking a city law is often reasonable, but the cost of court is ridiculously high, and may rise more if the court keeps losing money.
In theory, the Monroe City Court is funded by the Monroe City Council and serves to adjudicate small criminal matters and civil disputes of residents. However, the cost of operating the court continues to rise and with the cost, so does the associated court costs.
The City subsidizes the court by covering its facility costs, and the cost of its marshals. Beyond that, the court has to foot its own bill. According to the 2018 audit report, the court had $522,934 in expenses last year and went in the hole by $133,267.
The court has to fund the cost of its clerks and the three judges. It’s judges come with a hefty price tag: Judge Tammy Lee’s pay package is $141,000. Judge Jeff Joyce gets $122,000, and Judge Aisha Clark receives $121,000. The base pay of the judges is only $78,553, but each gets about $45,000 in benefits.
To maintain these costs is a battle every year because the judges want the city to absorb more of the costs rather than put them in a posture of raising court costs to pay their salaries.
In actuality, that’s where court costs actually go.
The court’s total revenue reported last year was $389,667. Except for $94,000 from grants and bank interest, all of the rest came from court costs fees, $161,000; Probation fees, $80,000 and other fees.
Sometimes court costs are more than the actual fine for breaking a law. For example, the fine for disturbing the peace is $100, but the court cost is $165.50.
There are others as well; each has a $165.50 court cost attached.
Noise violation fine $75 but the $165.50 makes it a $240.50 offense.
Open container violation fine is $75 for the first offense and $125 for the second offense, but in each instance, the court cost is more than the fine.
In many instances, the judges will hear a case of a resident and consider all of the circumstances involved and drop the fine, but they rarely drop the court costs. A person may be excused from a prostitution fine, but the guilty party still has to slap down $165.50 court cost.
A judge may conclude that a citizen did resist an officer, and drop the fine, but the citizen will still pay the $165.50 court costs.
The system shouldn’t put the judges in a situation where they must assess fines and fees to get their paycheck. Hopefully, the judges are not worried about their budget income when they look at the number of cases.
The trend away from the “We gots to get paid” attitude of the court began with the elections of Judge Larry Jefferson and later picked up by Judge Tammy Lee. Before Jefferson and Lee, the court made plenty of money because suspects who had five counts of resisting arrest were given fines and cost of court on all five counts if found guilty.
Jefferson and Lee began a trend of ignoring multiple counts of the same charge. That had the effect of reducing the overall income of the court, but it was the right thing to do.
Without a larger subsidy from the city, it is tempting for the judges to keep raising the court costs; which pays their salaries and their clerks.
That’s important to note because, in the city court, the judge is both judge and jury. Citizens must face three judges who shouldn’t have to consider “If I dismiss the cost of court and the fine, too, I might not get paid.”
The court lost $133,000 last year and had to dip into its kitty to make ends meet.
Apparently, our judges are trying to be compassionate to citizens that come before them. They should not have to worry about making up a deficit each time they hear a case. Neither should the cost of court be tied to the salaries of the persons responsible for levying the fines.
The purpose of the fine should be to encourage obedience to the law. It undercuts trust in the judiciary if it ever appears that heavy costs are levied because “we gots to get paid!”