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Initiatives help courts save money: Centralized fine-payment system helps budgets

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news Perham, 56573
Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

Behind the court administration counter at the Clay County Courthouse, the phones don't ring as much anymore.

It's not due to dwindling caseloads. A big reason for the silence is Minnesota's centralized system for fee and fine payments, one of the many efficiencies being adopted by the state's judicial branch as a response to budget shortfalls.

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Court officials showed off a number of the changes in a Friday demonstration at the Moorhead courthouse, hailing the computer-based practices as needed steps in a time of tight budgets.

"It's not business as usual," said Jan Cossette, the court administrator for Clay, Becker and Otter Tail counties.

The court payment center is one of the most visible changes for the public, allowing fines and fees for citations not requiring a court appearance to be paid either via phone toll free at (800) 657-3611 or online at www.mncourts.gov.

That frees up more time for clerks to handle other duties, which is essential because of a hiring freeze.

Clay County, for example, was unable to replace four clerks it lost over the past 18 months, though two of the posts were recently filled with clerks shifted from Becker and Otter Tail counties, Cossette said.

The centralized payment system also makes it easier to collect late fines. Past-due accounts automatically get tapped for collection, said Marsha Setrum, assistant district administrator for the 10-county 7th Judicial District that includes Clay County.

There are also significant changes happening behind the scenes. Counties across the state are in the process of implementing electronic charging, which allows for criminal complaints to be handled digitally. It limits the need for police agencies and judges to physically be present to sign off on prosecuting documents

"What I think it really helps is like, Hawley police," Cossette said.

Clay and Otter Tail counties are already using e-charging. Seventh District Chief Judge Peter Irvine, based in Detroit Lakes, said it's not being used yet in Becker County but has been highly anticipated.

Irvine said without the efficiency measures being enacted, the court's docket would be overwhelmed.

"We're very close to not being able to function," he said.

Officials also touted the instantaneous court orders produced using a statewide digital records system, and remote interpreters who call in by phone instead of driving to hearings.

By March, Clay County is expected to begin another time-saving digital initiative: e-citations. Police will scan the driver's license of a person being cited for a minor offense, and the ticket will immediately be sent to the courthouse.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, a Moorhead state lawmaker who observed the demonstration Friday, said the court system's initiatives are a good example of what Minnesota needs to do to deal with its budget issues.

"We're going to have to, to live within our means," Lanning said.

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