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Arkansas’ state circuit court system digging a ‘$46 million hole’

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(The Center Square) – Arkansas’ state circuit court system is digging a “$46 million hole,” lawmakers heard Tuesday.

The system cannot be adequately funded on revenue brought in through court costs and fines, officials said in a joint House and Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.

Mark Whitmore, who serves as chief legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, said a recent study of the state’s circuit court system found that counties “are digging a $46 million hole.”

“I think the error, what we’re trying to correct, everybody in this room probably needs to correct, is that several states in the United States, Arkansas included, had an ill-fated game plan,” Whitmore said. “They were going to try to fund the justice system off basically the court costs of the criminal defendant. And from our overview, not one state has succeeded in that. The cost of the system far outweighs the amount you derive from court costs or fines.”

He added it’s a “myth” to think the court system is a net money maker.

“They do drive revenue but it’s an unstable, unpredictable revenue based upon the collection rate of court costs,” Whitmore said.

John Wilkerson, General Counsel and Legislative Director for the Arkansas Municipal League told committee members one of the problems with the current financial setup is that the state’s Administration of Justice Fund is responsible for 24 different “buckets of funding.”

“That money is allocated every year but not all 24 buckets are filled with the actual allocation from the AOJ, not because the AOJ fund isn’t trying to but the money just isn’t there,” Wilkerson said.

Thirty different miscellaneous fees tacked onto criminal defendants causes “obvious confusion,” Wilkerson said.

“Larger than all of this, and really coming down to this larger point, is the weight of the system on the criminal defendants. That’s been a source that a lot of folks are talking about,” said Wilkerson.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said it sounded like the study would conclude that the state needs to pay more money and take some of the burden off local government.

“Does local government not have a place in paying for these services?” Clark asked.

“Yeah we definitely do,” said Whitmore. “Unfortunately we’re paying at a $46 million deficit.”

Wilkerson said it would be hard to predict how the study will unfold.

“That’s really kind of what’s intriguing about this whole process is that this is the first time in I think forever that we’ve taken a real shot at understanding this system,” said Wilkerson.

The committee was tasked to perform a legislative study on the financial structure of the state’s court system through Act 38, passed earlier this year.

The committee plans to meet once every three months and produce its final evaluation to the governor by October.

“I think, like myself, most legislators had no idea that we had these kind of problems in funding our courts and our cities and counties and the responsibilities they have and what they pay for funding the courts because I’ve been here a long time but we did not know this,” said Sen. Gary Stubblefield, who chairs the committee. “Believe it or not, when we pass laws there’s always some ambiguity in those laws and we need to straighten it out and certainly this study maybe we can come together and find some solutions to some of these problems.

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