State audit finds Baltimore Circuit Court's faulty fine collection system failed to collect $11 million

For the fourth time in 10 years state auditors found that the Baltimore Circuit Court clerk’s office failed to pursue a variety of overdue criminal fines and civil fees, including $7.6 million in delinquent penalties unpaid since before 2008.

Maryland’s Department of Legislative Audits also found that another $4 million in “deferred fees” — court costs that judges order defendants to pay after they leave jail — remains uncollected because the clerk’s office is not connected to a state database that provides those release dates.

In addition, auditors found that the office’s methods for paying jurors and collecting other fees for criminal and civil matters have no safeguards against theft and misspending. For example, “open baskets” — accessible all day to all employees — were used to collect checks for land record fees during the four-year period examined between October 2013 and Sept. 25.

“Our audit disclosed that the Office had not corrected certain longstanding deficiencies regarding the collection of delinquent criminal court fees, fines, and penalties which have been included in audit reports dating back to 2008,” Legislative Auditor Thomas J. Barnickel III wrote in his agency audit, released Monday.

As of November 2017, the clerk’s office had not forwarded to the collection unit in Maryland’s budget office 30,150 outstanding accounts totaling $7.6 million that date to before 2008. Barnickel’s office had notified the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees all of the circuit court clerks’ offices, of the same finding in three previous audits.

In a joint response, state Court Administrator Pamela Q. Harris and Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Marilyn Bentley — who is an elected official — agreed to the findings and vowed to fix them.

The clerk’s office generated about $29 million in revenue last year maintaining legal and land records, collecting all associated fees and “forwarding delinquent accounts to the state’s central collection unit at the Department of Budget and Management,” the audit states.

In addition to failing to forward the older accounts to the collection unit, the clerk’s office stopped forwarding all currently overdue accounts to the unit last June as it devised new procedures, the audit found. But as of December those 244 delinquent accounts totaling nearly $42,000 still had not been forwarded.

Bentley, who won her Democratic primary election in June and faces no Republican challenger in November, did not return a call seeking comment. She began as acting clerk in November 2016.

In a formal written response to the audit dated July 12, Bentley and Harris said deferred fees worth nearly $13,000 between October and January have been sent to the collection unit.

The clerk’s office, they wrote, “is currently ready to forward” all overdue accounts to the unit.

Neither Baltimore Circuit Court’s Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson, who oversees the court, nor Harris could be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary did not provide a comment about why the clerk’s office has not had access to the Criminal Justice Information System to determine prisoner release dates for collecting deferred fees.

Bentley and Harris said in their response that the issue was being addressed “until the court lost access to the Criminal Justice Information Services system in February 2016.”

“Access has not been restored,” they stated.

The system, known as CJIS, provides data on all criminal proceedings in Maryland and other states.

“Since the actual release date is not known when an individual is incarcerated, going forward, the office will calculate a due date based upon the maximum sentence expiration date,” the response states. “We will work to have CJIS access restored.”

The audit also found that Bentley’s office “lacked adequate controls” to secure fees collected for land record taxes and civil court actions, and that its system for paying jurors was not set up to prevent theft.

Checks sent by mail “were placed in open baskets throughout the business day, which were accessible to all Office employees,” the audit states. Seven employees had access to a safe and a lock box that held checks overnight.

In fiscal year 2017, the office paid $1.4 million in stipends to jurors. But those funds “could be misappropriated without detection,” the audit found. How? Employees could simply record an absent juror as “present” and send the check to any address they entered into the system or keep the payment.

There is no indication any such thefts took place, Barnickel said.

Bentley said in her response that the office has taken action to secure and verify those payments.

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