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Arkansas lawmakers face crunchtime in district court transition

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(The Center Square) – Arkansas lawmakers will “have to start thinking outside the box” as the deadline to finish transitioning all local district courts to state district courts by 2025 approaches, members on the joint judiciary committee were told Monday.

There are currently 10 local district judges left in nine counties across Arkansas. In 2025, the local district courts will no longer exist, and the state will have 70 state district judges serving in 41 districts, according to Kristin Clark, the Legal Services Division Director for the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).

Rep. Carol Dalby, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said it was time for members to start thinking outside the box.

“The reason why we’re having this task force is the voters 10-15 years ago voted to make district courts (into) state district courts,” said Dalby. “But within that, there was not a mechanism to make it all a state district court. So we’re looking at that, we’re looking at the funding, we’re looking at the issues of how fines and fees are collected and disbursed.”

Clark presented legislative audit findings and other district court-related issues during Monday’s meeting to help inform the final stages of the transition to all state district courts.

“We frequently have district courts that have repeated findings on legislative audit issues and that has to do with the complicated fee/fine distribution,” Clark said. “Some of it is just not complying with the processes and procedures that have been outlined in district court accounting law. Part of it is we don’t have a unified state case management system that has not only the case management side of it but also the accounting side to keep track of all this.

Clark said “unidentified funds” remain one of the most common findings, where courts have funds that can’t be applied to a specific case. This leads those funds to build.

Clark told the committee there are also issues with the way court fees and fines are assessed and distributed. Those problems have accumulated, leading to an Administration of Justice fund that is “not healthy,” said Clark.

“The programs, there’s probably 20 or so programs who receive funding directly out of it, are not receiving 100% of their appropriation. It’s about 35% of what’s appropriated is what they’re receiving currently,” Clark said.

Court costs and filing fees used to be decided locally and went toward funding local programs until 1995, when the state legislature passed uniform filing fees and court costs and prohibited additional new costs to fund special programs, according to Clark.

“As we have moved away from 1995 there have been almost 30 different new court costs or special fees that have been added to fund these very special programs,” Clark said.

The committee is tasked with producing a final report for the governor by October.

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