By Chad Fell
Courtesy of the Northwest Alabamian
BEAR CREEK — One of the many negative, lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is people failing to show up for court, bringing financial hardships on municipalities, which wind up paying for jail accommodations when the people are arrested for missing their court dates.
As the number of residents who are failing to appear in Bear Creek Municipal Court continues to grow, the town is now enforcing an ordinance, with a strict penalty for violators.
At the town council’s December meeting, Mayor Rob Taylor directed council members’ attention to Ordinance 2023-12A, which was drafted to regulate procedures for punishing persons who fail to appear in municipal court. Bear Creek Police Chief Eddie Collins addressed the town council about major problems law enforcement is facing with people not showing up for court.
“Twenty-five percent of our (court docket) are actually going to court,” Collins told the mayor and council.
“There is a cost if we arrest them and put them in the county jail. It’s so much a day the town gets billed for the use of that jail,” the chief added.
Clerk Kay Wiginton gave a breakdown, showing that, as of last week, the town is currently paying costs related to three inmates in the Marion County Jail on misdemeanor charges. Inmates with felony charges are handled by the county, she explained.
The town pays from the general fund $15 per inmate per day housed at the jail on misdemeanor charges placed on the person by Bear Creek Police. Along with this fee are a $25 one time lock-up fee per inmate and a $75 housing cost per day, according to figures presented by the clerk. Those costs vary considerably.
The town pays Marion County Sheriff Kevin Williams the food allowance for each inmate, with lock-up and housing fees paid to the Marion County Commission, town officials indicated.
One of the more recent bills sent to the town from the Marion County Sheriff was for a $40 food allowance, $125 in lock-up fees and $200 in housing fees for the current inmates, the clerk showed.
“When we take somebody to jail, this is what our fees are,” Wiginton said.
If the town puts someone in jail and it costs, for example, $35 a day for not showing up in court, “we are already in the hole $15 the first day,” Collins pointed out.
Bear Creek Court Magistrate Dorothy Meyer stressed she has dealt with no shows for court the entire two years she has been in that position, to the point that court in the past had to be set up every other month instead of monthly.
“We were losing money by having to pay the judge and the prosecutor,” Meyer stressed.
“If they know there is a fine they pay for not showing up, they are going to start showing up,” Meyer pointed out. “That way, they don’t have to pay an extra fine.
“It’s not that we’re trying to take anybody’s money,” Meyer emphasized. “We just want them to show up and pay what they are supposed to. You do the crime, you have to pay for it.”
The new ordinance, Collins stated, is designed to deter those costs by charging those who do not attend court, in order to offset costs the town has to face for their jail lodging.
In other words, it’s going to come out of their (inmates’) pockets and not the town’s,” Meyer explained.
The first time a person with misdemeanor charges fails to show up for municipal court, they face a failure to appear warrant. Now, according to the new ordinance, they are required to pay a fine of no less than $100 and no more than $250 for each offense, the wording of the ordinance reads.
The second time they do not show for court, a warrant will be issued for their arrest, town officials said.
All of the fees the town pays for that inmate will be added to the inmate’s fines, according to Meyer.
“The ordinance is trying to get people to come pay their fines,” Meyer stated, “to clear their name, to pay it off. Just show up - that’s the main thing.”
The new ordinance makes failure to appear an actual misdemeanor charge so that can be added to their other charges, town officials said.
“It’s a problem everywhere. After COVID, people just quit coming to court,” Collins pointed out. “If they would just come to court, we have a payment plan we set up for them.
“It’s not like we’re going to make them pay the whole thing right now,” Collins continued. “But without something to back that up, we’re putting them in, putting them in, giving them a new court date.
See complete story in the Journal Record.