LITTLE ROCK — A state court official said Friday there has been some improvement in court fee and fine collections after a recent drop that prompted state officials to direct one-time money to prop up a fund that pays for much of Arkansas’ judicial operations.
Keith Caviness, a staff attorney for Administrative Office of the Courts, told reporters that he is hopeful the improvement in collections will continue and boost the Administration of Justice Fund. Caviness appeared before a legislative committee reviewing the causes for the shortfall in the fund.
"Maybe we have a trend here, but so far February collections were sufficient and much better than before," said Caviness, who said courts collected about $3.7 million during that month. Caviness said the fund had been collecting about $2.2 million a month previously.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel announced in February that he would direct $450,000 from two settlements toward the fund, a move aimed at preventing the furloughs of 120 trial court assistants. Gov. Mike Beebe had previously used $130,000 from his emergency fund to avoid the furloughs.
In addition, the Administrative Office of Courts shifted $150,000 from another program to go toward the assistants earlier this year.
The fund, which is financed by court costs, fees to file lawsuits and fines for drug and traffic violations, has dwindled in recent years. Legislative auditors said Friday that the fund’s balance dropped from a high of $18 million in 2000 to about $1.4 million at the end of 2011.
J.D. Gingerich, the office’s director, said officials are hopeful that the increase means the justice fund is recovering from its past shortfall. The audit blamed a shortfall in the fund on a drop in court cases and warrants filed, as well as the national economic downturn.
Gingerich said officials weren’t sure why the collections had improved, but suggested that the focus on the fund’s shortfall may have helped.
"I think that the addition of a lot of attention, both on cities and counties and law enforcement and on judges and on court staff, that the extra attention on everybody involved in the process may have added some emphasis and impetus to paying closer attention to outstanding court costs," Gingerich said.
Caviness said court officials have been talking with national consultants about ways to improve court fine and fee collections and are also studying whether any changes to state law are needed to boost collections. Caviness said court officials don’t have specific proposals for next year’s legislative session.
"We would like to see this fix itself, like the economy hopefully will fix itself, and that’s the hope," Caviness said.