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Fines paid by New Jersey wrongdoers declined this year for the first time in seven years, despite a record effort by an aggressive, statewide, computer-aided unit that pursues delinquent probationers. In the fiscal year ending June 30, collections were $300,000 lower than the previous year after six years of $1.8 million average annual increases. Collections declined in seven counties. It could have been worse. The Comprehensive Enforcement Program, established in 1996 by the Administrative Office of the Courts to put some muscle into the pursuit of deadbeats, collected $18.4 million in fiscal 2003, more than half the $33.2 million total. And the CEP and its computer gurus are branching into new areas that go beyond collections, says Dennis Martin, who runs the program. In the works, for example, is a computerized tracking system to bring to justice probationers who don’t show up for court-ordered community service. Martin says the agency has not finished a computer program that would show with accuracy collection percentages of court-ordered payments. Part of the problem is that there are so many types of penalties, ranging from criminal fines to forensic lab fees and restitution. The only figures available last week were comparisons of how much each county has collected in each of the past seven years. Martin and AOC spokeswoman Winnie Comfort declined to disclose each county’s specific dollar goal for the latest fiscal year, though Comfort did say each court tries to do roughly 2 percent better each year and 4 percent better than the average of the previous four years. Mercer County’s 16.9 percent increase over last year was the largest in the state, but collections in Essex, Gloucester, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris and Sussex counties declined. The 30.6 percent decline in Morris was the sharpest, but it was not as dramatic as it seems. Morris had a record year in 2002, so the 2003 drop is just a return to normal levels. ‘A GROWTH INDUSTRY’ It’s hard to say why the traditional annual boost in collections didn’t materialize in 2003. Crime isn’t down; the number of indictable offense cases disposed by the courts rose 4 percent this year. “I’m afraid we’re in a growth industry,” Martin says of criminal activity. Among the possible explanations for this year’s collection numbers are the continuing bad economy for the 12 months ending June 30 and situations peculiar to individual counties, such as the spike in Morris last year, Martin says. In Monmouth, for example, the CEP coordinator position was vacant for two thirds of the year, Martin says. Perhaps anyone who can pay has paid. “You reach a saturation point with your efforts,” says Kathleen Riker, the assistant chief probation officer in Burlington County. It’s also tough to make year-by-year comparisons without knowing about particularly big fines in one year. A fine against a corporate polluter can make collectors look like geniuses that year and slackers the next. In setting county goals for each year, he AOC takes such spikes into account and does not include fines of $5,000 or more on the lists by which collectors are judged. Counties that do well through the years occasionally draw attention to their efforts. Under the heading “A fine is a punishment ONLY if it is collected,” Monmouth County Assignment Judge Lawrence Lawson wrote in last month’s edition of the county Bar newspaper that his smallish vicinage ranked second among all counties in money collected from 1996 to 2002. Until this year, the courts collected most of the fine dollars without resorting to Martin and his cadres at the CEP. This year, though, the unit made 55 percent of all collections, compared with 15 percent in 1996 when the CEP went into operation under a law written the year before, N.J.S.A. 2B:19. The court system and the Legislature established the program after they realized how much money the state was losing in uncollected fines. In 1993, for example, a check of the system disclosed that an estimated $139 million in financial penalties had not been paid. Martin recalled with some amusement last week that he gave the $139 million figure and all the caveats that went into the estimate to a reporter from The Record of Hackensack who seemed interested in the superb effort the courts were making to collect receivables. But the whopping arrearage, not the effort, captured the headlines in The Record and other newspapers and they in turn stirred the administration of James Florio, the Legislature and the courts to expand the AOC’s collection powers. Morris County Superior Court Judge Daniel Coburn, now retired, also was a leader of the effort. COMPUTER IN CHARGE The brains of the program now are the computers of the Comprehensive Adult Probation System, which collect information about fines when they are levied and automatically produce notices when payment has not been made in 30 days. The notices say, in effect, “we know you meant to pay but it probably slipped your mind.” If that does not work, the mailings get increasingly insistent until the nonpayer is summoned to a court hearing. To take the burden off Superior Court judges, the enforcement program has a squad of eight hearing officers — Martin calls them circuit riders — who hear excuses and try to work out realistic payment schedules. “The judges have a lot of new cases to deal with,” Martin says. “If we can use hearing officers it saves a lot of judge time.” Targets have a right to counsel, but the Office of Public Defender takes the position that they need not attend because there is a presumption that the hearing officers will not order incarceration or revoke probation, Martin says. He says of the targets: “If they can only pay a small amount, OK, but they need to pay it on a regular basis.” If they do not, the program can add additional sanctions familiar to bill-collectors the world over: judgments, wage garnishment and interception of tax refunds. Some people who cannot pay are diverted to various counties’ Sheriffs Labor Assistance Programs, where they can work off their fines, and the last resort is a couple of days in jail followed by court-ordered community service. In its search for every dollar that is owed, the program has expanded in recent years. It’s now the agency that collects money from lawyers required to make restitution to wronged clients through the Lawyers Fund for Client Protection. Hearing officers also have been invited into 17 municipal courts that want to improve their collection rates. And the program is getting involved in enforcement matters that do not have much to do with collections. Under a pilot project in Atlantic, Camden and Cape May counties, hearing officers are being brought in to quiz people who have failed to respond to repeated notices to report for jury duty — a failure that can carry a $500 fine. All the efforts seem to be cost-effective. The CEP’s budget for the 2004 fiscal year is 45 percent higher than in 2001, but it’s still a relative bargain: $1.6 million, about 9 percent of what it collects. It’s not just about the money, Martin insists. “It’s about cost effectiveness but it’s also about enforcing court orders and making sure people take responsibility for their actions,” he says. “They have to comply, and if they don’t, something is going to happen. It’s not going to go away.” “The word on the street is if you don’t comply with these conditions, further action is going to be taken,” he says.

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