Warrant collection program bringing in big bucks

A pilot program aimed at collecting on unpaid court warrants has exceeded Las Vegas' expectations, more than paying for its costs and generating additional money for the strapped city budget.

The goal was to generate $2.1 million in revenue from pending traffic and criminal warrants in Las Vegas Municipal Court. By the end of the 2011 fiscal year at the end of this month, the program is expected to pull in $5.6 million, well over the $4 million it costs to staff and operate the program.

"This is money that was already owed," Karen Coyne, the city's chief public safety officer, told City Council members Wednesday. "This was money that was just in need of collection."

The program was implemented as part of negotiations between the city's marshals and management over budget cutbacks. The marshals were facing 22 layoffs -- out of about 70 marshals -- and hit upon increased warrant collections as a way to keep from losing law enforcement officers.

The Municipal Court probably will issue 120,000 warrants this year, mostly for unpaid traffic tickets, Coyne said. So far, the marshals have cleared 35,513, and that number will be updated at the end of the budget year.

The court already had staff working on warrant collection, and rounding up delinquent DUI and domestic violence offenders was already a priority. The pilot program connected those efforts with marshals in the field and made tracking down traffic scofflaws part of the mix.

If someone is actively resisting contacts from the court or has been in warrant for more than 90 days, marshals will try to make direct contact with that person. Traffic offenders can make arrangements to pay some or all of their fines without going to city jail, but those avoiding court dates on DUI or domestic violence charges don't get that option.

The marshals unit also responds to other Southern Nevada law enforcement agencies who pick up people with Las Vegas warrants.

In addition to generating revenue, the program might have helped reduce the city jail's population, which dropped to an average daily count of 718 this year, down from 833 last year. If that continues, jail costs will drop.

"We don't know if it's an anomaly or a trend," Coyne said.

Councilman Steve Wolfson asked whether the city would reinstate ticket "amnesty" days to complement the program. On those days, people can clear tickets and warrants without having to worry about additional penalties.

The city used to offer them annually but stopped because people started relying on the amnesty days instead of paying fines on time, Deputy City Manager Orlando Sanchez said. Still, the city plans to offer an amnesty program this summer.

As for the warrant program, Coyne wants to make it permanent and does not expect the workload to drop soon.

"I think that certainly is a possibility some day far, far, far away in the future," she said. "There are years' worth of warrants that have not been worked."

There also will be thousands more issued next year: "If that's the workload distribution, I think that we can keep these groups actively engaged."

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.