Inadequate systems in the Baltimore City Circuit Court clerk’s office continue to allow millions of dollars in decades-old court fees to go uncollected, according to a state audit that repeated the findings of five previous audits.
In a report dated Oct. 17 but released to the public Thursday, the Office of Legislative Audits described how the clerk for Baltimore City Circuit Court had failed to correct problems identified in past audits related to how the office collects and keeps records on long-overdue criminal fines and penalties.
The audit covered the period from September 2017 to October 2021. The balance of outstanding criminal court fees was $12.7 million as of March 2021, according to records for the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office.
For the fifth time since 2008, state auditors found that the clerk’s office failed to pursue various criminal fines and civil fees, including $7.6 million in delinquent penalties unpaid since before 2008. Those accounts were found to be uncollectible in March 2021, according to two administrative orders, requiring them to be sent to the collection unit in the Maryland budget office.
As of March 2022, the clerk’s office had not forwarded 22,750 accounts of those outstanding accounts totaling $6.2 million to the collection unit as state rules dictate.
“A similar condition regarding uncollectible accounts has been commented upon in our four preceding audit reports dating back to August 2008,” legislative auditor Gregory Hook noted in the 16-page report.
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In addition, auditors found that the clerk’s office did not do enough to collect an additional $3.2 million for deferred fees that judges ordered defendants to pay after leaving jail.
About 10,400 of these accounts were initially recorded with missing due dates when a defendant’s release date was unknown, a situation mentioned in past audits dating back to 2011.
Since the last audit in 2018, the clerk’s office has updated the status of 5,700 accounts adding up to $2.2 million but sent out only 50 notices to defendants. As of June 2021, accounts adding up to $1 million still lacked a due date in the system, auditors said.
In a joint response from state Court Administrator Pamela Harris and Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Marilyn Bentley, they agreed to forward delinquent accounts to the collection unit and collect deferred court fees.
Bentley’s office asked the collection unit in September to abate costs and fines for “excessively aged cases” from 1961 through 2007. The collection unit’s decision is pending, according to the Oct. 7 response.
Bentley, a Democrat first elected in 2016 after serving as acting clerk, could not be reached for comment.
The audit also found that the clerk’s office lacked functional processes for collecting land record taxes and civil court fees and recommended fixes like immediately endorsing checks upon receipt and using initial mail records to verify fee deposits.