OTTAWA - The federal government is looking to hire a collection agency to recoup millions of dollars in unpaid fines.

A letter of interest posted on a government contracting website shows 22,313 people owed close to $129 million in unpaid fines as of March 31, 2011. The government said Monday that as of July 31, that number has since risen to more than $137 million.

"The (Public Prosecution Service of Canada) requires the services of firm or agency specialized in collection services," the document says.

"Specific services of PPSC are required to collect outstanding federal fines owed to Canada, including Criminal Code fines, surcharges and court costs ordered with the federal fine at sentencing. This includes legal costs where applicable, using appropriate collection methods."

The letter of interest provides a breakdown of the outstanding balances:

— 2,009 people owed more than $10,000;

— 1,049 people owed between $5,000 and $10,000;

— 4,530 people owed between $1,000 and $5,000;

— 3,702 people owed between $500 and $1,000;

— 5,129 people owed between $250 and $500;

— 5,894 people owed less than $250.

The Atlantic provinces had the most outstanding accounts, with 6,618, followed by Alberta with 4,129 and Quebec with 3,132.

Before 1996, the Criminal Code called for people to automatically be sent to jail for not paying fines, according to a spokesman for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. But changes to the Code ended that practice. Up until 2002, the federal prosecution service ran a pilot project to recover unpaid federal fines.

The National Fine Recovery Program started in 2002 to collect money from people convicted of crimes under federal law. The program is administered by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.

There are small fine-recovery teams in eight cities: Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax. The program employs about 19 paralegals and clerks as well as part-time prosecutors, the document says.

But funding for the program ends next March, the letter of interest says.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada said it "takes the recovery of fines very seriously and endeavours to ensure that fines are collected in an efficient manner."

The federal government currently has several options to collect outstanding fines. They include negotiating a payment schedule with the debtor, seizing assets or garnisheeing wages, setting off the debt against any income-tax refunds and sales-tax credits, suspending or denying federal licences and permits, or — as a last resort — sending a debtor to jail.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada's most recent annual report says federal debt collectors have recouped $56 million in unpaid fines since 2002.

In 2010-11, the report says debt collectors recovered just $5 million — down 15 per cent from the previous year. Nearly all fines collected were in the $5,000 range, and the government closed 1,600 case files.

Around 150 people were jailed between April 2010 and March 2011 for refusing to pay their fines, the annual report notes.

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