SC courts are getting less fine and fee revenue during COVID. Here's what that means
Already declining court fines and fees in Upstate counties - and around the state- are falling further as COVID-19 slows justice and squeezes budgets used to train police, fund drug courts and pay some salaries, among others.
In Greenville and Pickens counties - the 13th Judicial Circuit - fines and fees were down 22.5% across all courts in the three months ending Sept. 30, compared to last year, from $1.65 million to $1.28 million, according to the state Treasurer's Office.
Statewide, from July 31, 2019 to July 31, 2020, fine and fee annual revenue dropped from $78 million to a little more than $68 million. That's a 12% loss.
Treatment courts could languish
Every other Thursday evening during COVID-19, Judge Charles Simmons Jr. holds a socially distanced version of adult drug court, one of the 13th Circuit's programs designed to rehabilitate people rather than send them to jail.
"We deal with longtime, hardcore drug addicts," Simmons told The Greenville News. "They've been in and out of the criminal justice system for years, and nothing has worked." The success stories are powerful and hard fought, Simmons said. Drug court participants commit to about 18 months of meetings, drug screenings and counseling.
Usually there are about 35 people enrolled in adult drug court, though 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins says he'd like to see enrollment reach 100 participants.
Growth is largely limited by funding, he said.
"We constantly need more money for drug court, but we can't get it," Wilkins said. "It's expensive. The benefit outweighs the cost, don't get me wrong, but it's an upfront cost to rehabilitate a drug addict."
It costs about $400,000 each year to run adult drug court alone, with half of the money coming from fine and fee revenue. As court proceedings slowed and stopped during COVID-19, less fines and fees were imposed, Wilkins said. Now the program likely won't have room to expand and employee salaries or participants could be cut if there's still a budget shortfall, Wilkins said.
Though a $120,000 budget shortfall is typical, there have been enough carry over funds to fill in the gaps in prior years, but that money is running thin, Wilkins said.
Fines and fee revenue provided to the 13th Circuit dropped $148,000 from the $697,000 raised last year, according to the SC Commission on Prosecution Coordination. Funding to solicitors offices statewide dropped $1.3 million. Lisa Catalanotto, the commission's executive director, attributes some of that loss to the pandemic.
Catalanotto said treatment courts around the state tend to depend heavily on fines and fees. Other funding usually comes from grants or local governments.
During a recent meeting in Columbia, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, who oversees circuit courts in Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties, noted fine and fee revenue has dried up in the last six months.
He says he wants to request $175,000 in additional state funding for treatment courts in each of the state's 16 judicial circuits mainly to help extend services in poorer areas.
"Every circuit in South Carolina has at least one county, in my case four counties, that have higher poverty than the state average," Stone said.
Law enforcement training slows
The state's Law Enforcement Training Council is preparing for an uncertain year of fine and fee revenue as the demand for trained law enforcement officers increases with more officers retiring during the pandemic, Jackie Swindler, Law Enforcement Training Academy director, said.
The council gets about 40% of its $16.1 million budget from fines and fees.
"During COVID we really, really got hit with fines and fees," Swindler said. "In fact, last year we were almost $827,000 down, but already this year - from July to September - we're down a little over $283,000."
The academy temporarily cut class sizes from 70 to 26 during the pandemic, which wasn't enough to keep up with the demand for training, Swindler said. There were 215 people enrolled and waiting to begin basic law enforcement training classes as of Oct. 28. So far this year, 542 people graduated basic law enforcement training, about half as many graduates as the same time last year.
"We're not to full steam running, but we're walking faster than we were crawling at first," he said.
Although the smaller class sizes may slow the pipeline for new officers, it's also helping the commission save on operating and supply costs, Swindler added. "We're managing, but it's just uncertain times," he said.
Indigent defense is 'treading water'
Salaries for South Carolina public defenders rely in part on fine and fee revenue. The state's Indigent Defense Commission saw an $880,000 drop in fines and fees last year, Director Hugh Ryan said.
"From fiscal year 2009-2010 to present, we've lost over $4.2 million in fee and fine revenue and a quarter of that came in the last year," he said. "So, COVID just exacerbated the problem."
More revenue losses could make it difficult to fund public defender positions through the end of the year, he said. The commission has not filled two vacant positions in its office and advised public defenders offices around the state to budget conservatively, he said.
"We got some appropriated dollars to help soften the blow, but the problem is all that does is keep you treading water," he said. "It doesn't allow you to really expand the number of services you may need to expand."
That means hiring more public defenders to bring caseloads down to a more manageable level, as well as more investigators help with cases, Ryan said.
Haley Walters writes about crime and courts. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @_haleywalters