Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Budget Cuts, A $3 Fee, and 28% Less Prosecutions in Fairfax County

During my campaign, I proposed that the state help fund a new system in Fairfax County that would streamline the issuance of criminal citations. Fairfax County processes over 280,000 traffic and criminal citations per year. Most of these citations are issued by officers in the field who write them up by hand. They were then data entered by 10 employees of the Fairfax County Police (even though this is really part of the state's responsibility as operation of the Court system (but that is underfunded also)).

However, many states have gone to electronic ticketing systems. This requires annual software expenses and printers. The software vendor licensing fees are partly a function of the number of tickets written. Plus, bar code reads speed the data entry process because you can simply want the driver's license information with one click.

My law partner, Senator Chap Petersen, and I both introduced legislation (here and here) that would have allowed Fairfax County to charge a $3 per ticket fee to help cover the costs of this system so that convicted defendants would help cover the cost of the system made necessary by their behavior.

I presented the bill with the Clerk of the Fairfax County General District Court. No one spoke against it. It was killed on a party-line vote with no explanation. After I agreed to some modifications, I secured the support of Fairfax County Delegate and House Courts Chairman Dave Albo and it was voted on again and killed again on a party line vote (Delegate Albo is not on the subcommittee that killed it). Senator Petersen's bill cleared the Senate 31-9 and was killed in the House a couple weeks later. Several colleagues told me later that many legislators might view a $3 traffic ticket fees as a tax increase.

At the beginning of the year, the Fairfax County Police Department implemented the software system and partly funded it by reassigning the ten employees doing data entry (resources are also limited due to the County's budget cuts), but they did not purchase the bar code readers or printers. What's the result?

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the Fairfax County Police implemented the system without bar code readers and printers. Because of this, the Fairfax County Police have issued 28% fewer tickets since January 1. DWI tickets are down 24%.

The reason is simple. Those of us who practice in the courthouse have heard all the stories from the police officers on the street. The time it takes to manually type in a ticket, plus write it out by hand, has vastly increased the amount of time it takes to write a ticket. Cops have been turned into data clerks on the side of the road.

Since then, I have been lobbying the Board of Supervisors to simply appropriate the money to purchase bar code readers and printers. Hopefully, someone will be able to find the money. I also asked my bill to be considered as part of the Governor's Commission on Government Reform.

If no one acts, welcome to one more consequence of the state refusing to meet one of its basic responsibilities like law enforcement - more criminals free to break the law.

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