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Delaware judiciary looks to shift away from reliance on fines and fees revenue

James Dawson
Delaware Public Media

Delaware’s Judiciary asked lawmakers this week to provide more General Fund support to help courts reduce their reliance on fines and fees revenue.

Delaware’s General Assembly has recently scaled back fines and fees applied to criminal defendants in state courts to limit their disproportionate impact on low-income Delawareans. Last fall, Gov. John Carney signed into law a bill eliminating several court fees outright — including ending the practice of charging probationers for their supervisions — and giving courts greater flexibility to modify or waive fees for people struggling to pay them.

Delaware’s judiciary has been supportive of those reforms, but Office of Management and Budget Director Cerron Cade told the Joint Finance Committee on Thursday that the changes will limit the courts’ revenue — a pressing budgetary concern, given the courts already spend $1 million more annually than their revenue can cover.

"And I don’t necessarily know if there’s a long-term plan or strategy behind how we backfill that loss in fee revenue," Cade said. "If the solution is to completely move the courts to the general fund, that’s going to be a long-term strategy."

Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Collins Seitz argued that replacing portions of the judiciary's budget currently reliant on court revenues with dollars from the general fund would be more sustainable and would allow reforms to progress without impacting court operations.

"As much as possible, we ought to make the judiciary a general fund judiciary instead of essentially funding judicial operations off the backs of poor people, frankly," he said, "which some of these fees and fines do."

This year, the judiciary is only asking the General Assembly to replace $500,000 in their budget currently sourced from court revenue. That initial request would reverse a decision made during a statewide revenue shortfall in 2017 to plug a gap in the judiciary’s budget with court revenues.

Seitz also asked lawmakers to consider allowing judges discretion to impose fines and fees based on a defendant’s ability to pay. "The state would collect more money," he said, "because instead of hitting people with fines they'll never be able to pay, if you give judges discretion to do a financial analysis of what they'll be able to be, we won't be writing off $20 to $30 million in unpaid fees and fines in thirty years — we'll actually be collecting a chunk of that."

Delaware launched a study group to consider additional fines and fees reforms last month.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.