Cities turning to social media to round up delinquent fines

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Published: September 9,2012

Tags: court fines, Facebook, municipal government, West Point

About a year ago the city of West Point started a pilot program aimed at getting folks with overdue court fines to pay up.

The initial phases called for the names of those with delinquent court fines and those with active arrest warrants to appear in the local newspaper, and advanced to the point that a handful of them drawn randomly would begin to appear on the West Point Police Department’s Facebook Page.

The program worked, said West Point police chief Tim Brinkley. By June 30, the end of the city’s fiscal year, just more than $220,000 in delinquent court and traffic fines had been collected.

“It’s done about what we expected it to,” Brinkley said. “Our overall mission was to make offenders aware that they had these fines outstanding. And even then, it didn’t scare them. I’m serious, the threat of arrest just doesn’t scare anybody anymore.”

Facebook wasn’t necessarily a last resort, Brinkley said, but once officials felt the newspaper postings had done about all they could do, it was social media that cleaned up a lot of what was left. The Facebook postings started in late February of this year.

“The newspaper listings made the people who were going to pay eventually go ahead and do so. But it was Facebook that got even those who had no plans to pay to get their fines paid. People who don’t live here anymore keep up with the city of West Point and each other on Facebook. The threat of embarrassment, or the possibility it could mess up somebody’s job, was enough to get a lot of people to pay their fines.”

Brinkley said it would be difficult to duplicate that success, only because the rolls of delinquent fines and unserved arrest warrants are not as bloated as they were this time last year. “But we’ll still have some we’ll have to post because court issues fines every month, and there will always be those who don’t pay on time.”

The program was successful that it was one of the winners of the Mississippi Municipal League’s Excellence Awards at the organization’s annual conference earlier this summer. Clay Hamilton, who helps businesses and government entities reach their audiences via the social media and the Internet as a whole, said the benefits of social media for government are easy — it reaches a large numbers of people and it’s free.

For communities like Alcorn County’s Farmington, it could potentially serve as a way to generate revenue via unpaid fines — like West Point did — without having to spend money to do so.

Debora Jackson, Farmington’s city clerk and court clerk, said in an interview last week that the city’s aldermen are scheduled to vote Sept. 18 whether to start a system of posting names of delinquent fine-holders and those who are delinquent on payments to city-owned utilities on the city’s Facebook page.

“It’s free and its public record,” Jackson said. “The only information that we’ll post is the name and the dollar amount.”

The city of Farmington has its own website, Jackson said, but its traffic is not as heavy or as consistent as the Facebook page devoted to promoting the annual Civil War battle re-enactment in the area.

If and when aldermen approve the system, Jackson said, its sole purpose won’t be to convince those with delinquent fines to get current. If it gets the green light, Jacksons said she’s hopeful to have they system operational by the end of September.

“We also have some outstanding credits that we would like to get to people,” she said. “After we have that information for five years, we have to turn it over to the state for unclaimed property. We’d much rather get them their sewer deposit refund before that five years (is over). But believe it or not, we have refunds due to people and we just can’t find them.”

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