Earlier this year, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee instructed the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) to look into the revenue generated from the crime victim and witness assistance surcharge.
This is a surcharge imposed on each felony or misdemeanor conviction.
The money is collected by the Circuit Court and deposited with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to fund a couple of crime victim and sexual assault victim support programs.
These programs assist crime victims in navigating the justice system, provide modest restitution for some crimes and fund organizations that assist victims of sexual assault.
The audit committee asked for this review because surcharge revenue declined between fiscal years 2008-09 and 2010-11 even though the surcharge was increased by $7 during that time.
The LAB completed its review and concluded that there were a number of reasons that the total amount of revenue collected went down.
One issue they looked at was the total number of convictions.
Between fiscal years 2006-07 and 2010-11, the number of criminal charges filed decreased by 13.6 percent.
According to the audit, one of the reasons for the decrease in criminal charges is that prosecutors are filing fewer criminal charges in total in order to focus on the highest priority cases.
Another reason for the decrease in criminal charges is that district attorneys can use deferred prosecution agreements.
Under these agreements, criminal charges are reduced or dropped if the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser crime and agrees to do certain things, like pay restitution or attend therapy or perform community service, but the surcharge may not always be levied.
Another reason for the decline in surcharge revenue is that some criminal charges that were once filed in circuit court, where the surcharge is assessed, are now filed in municipal courts which do not assess the surcharges.
Some of the crimes that are now more commonly tried in municipal courts include disorderly conduct, possession of drug paraphernalia, and minor theft.
Finally, the audit found that between 2008-09 and 2010-11 there were 12.4 percent fewer total convictions.
Another question that was raised was about the collection rate for the surcharge.
The concern was that the surcharge was being assessed, but criminals were not paying it.
The audit found that there was about $12 million in outstanding surcharge assessments owed that had not been paid.
Although most the assessed surcharges are paid within a year, the LAB was interested in learning why the rest might go unpaid.
When the auditors spoke to district attorneys and clerks of courts, the county officials told them that people were having a harder time paying their fines and fees because of the economy.
The audit also looked to see if judges reduced or waived the amount of surcharges owed.
The clerks of courts reported that the judges in their counties rarely or occasionally waived the surcharge, although there was not clear data on how frequently the surcharge is waived.
According to the audit, they were able to determine from the available data that judges reduced the amount owed in only about 2.4 percent of cases, not a significant portion of cases.
In the Department of Justice’s response to the audit, they explain that they are concerned about the continued decline in revenue from these surcharges and the impact on their ability to serve crime victims, but they disagreed with the audit bureau’s interpretation of crime statistics.
While they agree with the audit bureau’s conclusion regarding the impact of deferred prosecution agreements, they believe more attention should be paid to the actual collection of the fees and that the audit should also have looked at assessments on juvenile criminals.
In the end, the DOJ suggests that the legislature may need to revisit these surcharges and examine collection efforts to ensure that revenues are available for the programs they support.