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Even court officials find fees hard to untangle

Because of the Legislature's tinkering, the matrix of fees, fines and costs criminal defendants face has grown into an administrative thicket that even people who see it every day can find baffling.

"Sometimes I can't even tell my client what the bill is for," said David Gonzales, an Austin defense attorney.

The Office of Court Administration fields "hundreds of calls a year from trial court officials about how to assess and prioritize fines, fees, and surcharges in criminal cases," the agency wrote in a 2009 report.

The report concluded, "The sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package."

The system can also be unfair. Courts across the state can assess the myriad costs and fees in different ways, so "the court costs a defendant must pay can vary for the exact same offense," the report said.

Everyone convicted of a crime starts with a "consolidated court cost." The more severe the crime, the higher the fee. Felons owe $133, lesser criminals $40.

After that, there are six other fees levied against every convict, including assessments for "records management," a "clerks fee," a "county and district court technology fund" and a "courthouse security fee."

Defendants then can be dinged for dozens of other costs, depending on the crime and jurisdiction. Dense charts compiled by the Office of Court Administration show three dozen possible costs and fees.

Those arrested on a warrant must pay a $50 fee; those arrested without one pay $5. Those who go to jail pay $5 when they enter jail and $5 when they leave. DWI defendants can be assessed a "visual recording fee" to cover the cost of videotaping their arrests. Sex criminals pay a $250 DNA fee.

There are even fees on fees, which critics say disproportionately punish the poor. Defendants pay a $25 fee if they need to set up a schedule to pay all their other fees. They can be charged a $12 "restitution installment fee" if they need to pay their court-ordered victims restitution over time and then a $2 "transaction fee" every time they make an individual payment.

In 2009 and again in 2011, the Texas Judicial Council, which makes policy for the state's courts, passed resolutions urging the Legislature to simplify the costs and fees, without success.

The current system of criminal court costs, said Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is "a messy closet that needs to be tidied up."

Contact: 445-1774

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