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Local judge works on ‘fine’ moment

BY SAM LANE | APRIL 23, 2010 7:30 AM

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Sixth District Judge Stephen Gerard has had an effect far beyond his sun-soaked quarters in the Johnson County Courthouse.

Four years ago, he created a program designed to force Johnson County’s law breakers to literally pay for their crimes.

Now that program has raised more than $1.2 million that likely wouldn’t have been collected.

At first, it appeared few people were paying their dues. Around when Gerard began keeping statistics in March 2007, roughly 60 percent of convicts hadn’t made a single payment on their fines. Three years later, that number has dropped roughly 10 percent.

“Word is getting out that you have to pay your fines,” he said.

So how did he do it?

Gerard decided he would revisit all of his cases after six months. If an individual has not paid her or his fine, he schedules a “show cause hearing,” which requires the convict to explain why the fine has not been paid.

Gerard then puts them on a payment plan where they pay at least $50 a month. If they are unable, the individual is required to complete seven hours of community service each month to pay off the fine.

“It’s like the ostrich phenomenon,” Gerard said of people unwilling to pay their fines. “People know they have to pay, they’re scared about what’s going to happen to them, and they bury their heads in the sand.”

In a time of economic crisis, he has made sure people know the necessity of paying their fines. As a result, in the last four years, he has brought in much needed dollars to a state struggling with budget woes.

“The program isn’t just about dunning people for money,” he said.

And Gerard sees very little, if any, of the money he’s raised. David Boyd, the Iowa state court administrator, said the money collected from the program functions much like other fines in the judicial system. Ultimately, 95 percent of the money goes to the state, of which 83 percent ends up in the general fund.

“Generally speaking, one of the few bright spots in last year’s and this year’s state revenues has been judicial revenue,” Boyd said. “We’re just trying to be part of the team.”

The judicial system only receives 2 to 3 percent of the state’s budget.

But programs similar to Gerard’s fine collection system are currently in a state of “flux,” Boyd said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Chet Culver signed a bill that would allow those who owe money to the state to settle their fine with a debt-collection coordinator for 50 percent of the amount owed.

“It’s better than not getting anything,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City. “People have to understand we’re working with individuals to get something.”

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