Friday, November 7, 2008

TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!)

I noticed a couple of blog posts yesterday that fit together to paint an interesting picture and raise important questions about public policy.

First, on the blog of the Indiana Courts Judicial Automation and Technology Committee, we learned that October represented a record month for the Odyssey public access site, with "an average of 245 different users every day of the month." The post ends with "Access public records 24/7 free of charge."

"Free" is a slippery word when it comes to government services. Most of us understand that somebody always pays and start to wonder who pays and how much when a government agency says "free".

So it's a happy coincidence that on the same day, over at the The Indiana Law Blog, Marcia Oddi posted an overview of court fees that was presented to the Commission on Courts. The charts show a complete breakdown of all fees. The 3-page overview for the Commission presents detailed information on several recently added fees, but skips over the (you guessed it) "Automated Record Keeping Fee" of $7, which funds the JTAC projects, Odyssey being the largest. We'll correct that oversight here.

The important fact I learned from this report is how often the fee is collected. For criminal cases, fees aren't assessed if you are not found guilty, and the occasional scofflaw never gets around to paying. Based on the numbers given to the commission, fees are collected on about 56% of all cases. I won't drag you through all of the math. (Click here if you want details.) The bottom line is that since this fee was initiated in 2001, JTAC has collected 48.2 million dollars from the people who file court cases or pay fines in Indiana. Maybe "free" isn't quite the right word. I'd suggest: "Paid for by the citizens of Indiana." The companies who are the primary consumers of this information should know who to thank for this valuable gift.

This concern about the public subsidizing a relatively small number businesses drove Doxpop to decide on a different business model: If you are one of the many for-profit businesses that use court information, we will provide that service for a reasonable fee. If you are a court, we charge you nothing. If you are not a court, but are another government agency or non-profit, we will cut our fees in half, thus supplying the service below our cost. Most importantly, if you don't need our service, you don't pay a dime.

It's not a free lunch, but we believe it is fair, and perhaps more important to the public, honest in its transparency.

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