Denver council blocked city courts from prosecuting people who owe small fines, citing fairness

After a two-week hiatus from that work, the Denver City Council on Monday approved a contract with a debt collection agency that pursues those who owe outstanding fines, fees and restitution ordered in court cases of the Denver County.

The contract, a two-year extension with Integral Recoveries, omitted a specific item that court staff previously asked the board to approve. Integral will not have the ability to sue individuals who owe a total of $300 or less.

The streamlined contract comes as the city of Denver prepares to join a nationwide effort to analyze local fees and fines and assess their impact on social and economic justice, according to City Councilwoman Jamie Torres.

Integral has been handling collections on overdue accounts for Denver County Court since 2009. Its previous contract was extended in 2020 but expired Feb. 1 of this year.

Court administrator Kristin Wood presented a two-year extension to the board for approval in late March, but the vote was delayed after Torres raised concerns about the contract amendment that would have allowed Integral to pursue these smaller balances.

The contract came back before the board on April 4.

Wood explained at the April 4 meeting that all outstanding totals were previously part of collection efforts, but when the court extended its deal with Integral into 2020, it curtailed the work due to budget cuts. Difficulties programming the court and Integral’s system to process amounts under $300 led to these accounts being discontinued for two years. Both parties were ready to move forward with system upgrades that would allow all outstanding balances to be eligible for collections again.

But this contract was not subject to a fairness assessment before being submitted to the board to measure its positive and negative impacts. Torres argued that it was not ready to pass unmodified.

“I remain concerned about the contract and whether it would perpetuate or exacerbate poverty in Denver,” Torres said at that meeting. “Nationally, fines and fees disproportionately fall on low-income people and people of color and make it difficult for low-income people to access basic services and goods.”

Although the Denver County Court has its own in-house collections department, Wood noted that if the contract failed, she would have to tell Integral to stop collections. The board voted 5-5 on the contract that night, failing.

City staff estimated it would take at least six weeks for a modified contract to come back to council, but Councilman Paul Kashmann directly filed the simplified contract that passed Monday after just two weeks late. It was passed as part of the council’s consent agenda, a sign of a lack of controversy surrounding the measure.

During that two-week period, Integral stopped making collections from Denver County Court accounts, Wood told the Denver Post on Monday.

The company does not charge the city for its services. Instead, it collects a 20% fee from people with overdue accounts at the time of collection, sending the rest of the money to court, officials say.

Since 2009, he has raised nearly $37.8 million on behalf of the city. During the first quarter of 2022, the Denver County Court transferred over $378,000 in delinquent accounts to Integral. The company raised about $310,000 during that time, Wood said.

Torres, during the April 4 contract discussion, pointed out that Denver will soon join a handful of other cities — including Dallas, Philadelphia and Seattle — in a study of how municipal fees and fines are handled at all levels. The city’s Office of Financial Empowerment & Protection is leading this effort.

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