Virginia loses about $170 million a year because its local courts routinely fail to collect nearly half of all the fines and fees they levy against criminals and traffic-ticket scofflaws, a state audit shows.

The Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts found that circuit and district courts across the state assess a total of about $357 million a year in fines and court costs, but they can only get offenders to pay $185 million. Over the past five years, it has cost the state $856 million at a time when Virginia is cutting back programs and raising taxes to pay for road repairs and other services.

One of the reasons the state is losing so much money, auditors said, is that it slashed its budget to the point that court clerks and local prosecutors are now "understaffed and overworked" and unable to devote more time and resources to collection efforts.

Virginia district and circuit court fines and costs
Year Assessments Collections Uncollected
2008 $341,831,752 $186,062,295 $155,769,456
2009 345,667,316 178,785,682 166,881,634
2010 375,925,389 177,586,142 198,339,247
2011 367,392,374 196,511,273 170,881,101
2012 352,730,490 188,308,433 164,422,057
Source: Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts

"With reduced resources, the commonwealth's current collection procedures do not clearly treat the payment of fines and costs as an important part of the defendant's punishment," auditors said.

In 2012, local courts levied $352 million in fines but collected just $188 million. Circuit courts, which handle more serious criminal cases, have a far worse collection rate -- about 27 percent -- than district courts, which collect 60 percent of their fines. But despite the better recovery rate, those district courts deal with a much larger volume of cases, mostly traffic violations, and so are responsible for $122 million of the $164 million uncollected last year.

About 10 percent of unpaid fines can be attributed to people who were sent to jail and, as a result, didn't have the means to pay their fines.

Courts can suspend the licenses of convicted offenders who don't pay their fines, and if the Department of Taxation is notified, wages can be garnished. But auditors said the process is convoluted and disjointed. Money collected goes toward the state General Fund and the Literary Fund, among other sources.

"A lot of it is because the people who commit crimes are people who can't live properly in society, and people who can't live properly in society can't hold jobs, and people who can't hold jobs, don't have money," said House Courts of Justice Committee Chairman Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield. "And if you're just a government employee, there's no serious motivation to go after these people."

Maryland doesn't track how much it levies in fines or how much is never collected, an Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman said. Maryland's courts did tally about $423 million in revenue, including court fees, in 2012.

To correct the state's problems and add badly needed revenue to its coffers, the auditors recommended the General Assembly explore creating a statewide collection unit to go after delinquents. But Albo said such collection efforts should be done on the local level rather than by the state.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Clerk John Frey said auditors failed to recognize how difficult it is to extract money from most offenders.

"If the person is indigent, if they have a court-appointed attorney, it's unrealistic to think we're going to be able to get a lot of money out of those folks," Frey said. "[Courts] are getting about as much as they can out of the system."

Staff writer Andy Brownfield contributed to this report.