Saturday, April 02, 2016

DMN 'Watchdog': Probation fees turn POs into bill collectors

Good stuff from Dave Lieber in his "Watchdog" column at the Dallas Morning News yesterday about how high probation fees impact offenders' success or failure on probation. He wrote, in critical part:
Attention has turned to a fault line in the adult probation world. The crack is that probation officers across Texas are required to serve as bill collectors more than rehabilitators. In Bell County, half of the office payroll comes from probation fees. If those on probation don’t pay, paychecks can’t get cashed.

In our area, half the office budget for Collin County’s probation budget comes from fees as well. In Denton and Dallas County, it’s closer to 40 percent.

That causes a conflict about what the job of probation officer actually is. Another problem: When a probationer can’t pay a fee and gets punished, his or her family suffers, too, which community experts say can lead to a cycle of poverty for everyone.

One probation officer told researchers from the Robina Institute at the University of Minnesota Law School: “People say they only have enough money to put food on the table and take care of their family and ‘what do you want me to do?’ They just don’t have any money. There is no income.”

Fees are adding up: court costs; lab fees; CrimeStopper fees; Life Skills program fee; Pre-Sentence Investigation Report fees; Substance Abuse Questionnaire fee; and the monthly probation supervision fee, about $40 to 60.

In Texas, House Speaker Joe Straus asked an interim committee to come up with ideas to reform the system. One way: if the 2017 Legislature were to budget $160 million a year to probation departments to make up for the fees. But that’s not going to happen so fast.
Lieber highlighted Bell County probation director Todd Jermstad's role in facilitating ground-level research by the Robina Institute:
The Bell County study began because probation director Todd Jermstad invited Robina Institute researchers to interview many in his department.

The study’s conclusions that probation officers must act like bill collectors do not trouble him. He knows that’s true. Jermstad says that if he ever faced a choice between prison and probation, he’d skip working with his own department and instead go to prison.

With prison and then parole, it’s mostly over. Probation can linger and cost money for a long time.
“These fees have gotten out of hand,” he said. “They’re funding government when they were not intended for that.”

One Bell County probationer has paid $10 a month since 1997, the study found. Another served five years of probation and was $175 short on his payments. His probation was extended two more years, and when he couldn’t get a job, he went to jail.

Jermstad says he’s forced to run his department like a business. “It’s making payroll. You don’t meet your sales quota, and you lay somebody off.”

Probation officers whose collection rates are strong can get a half day off as a reward. Those not doing well might get penalized, he says.

“We train them to collect. It’s a major thing to do.”
See earlier Grits coverage of the Robina Institute study.


Anonymous said...

Great story, except that in Harris County, all Texas peace officers are the bill collectors. When a Probationer falls behind on fines and fees, the PO just sends the file to the court, and the Judge in that court issues an arrest warrant on that probationer. Then it's up to any peace officer that stops that probationer to take him into custody.

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend asked his PO about early release from probation and got released 2-3 years early! We figured he would be saving the $60 monthly fee, so it would be worth having to pay the lawyer to go back to court to get the release papers signed. Wrong! He had to pay the monthly fees for the early release time in one payment before the judge signed the papers -- over $2,000. Well worth it though -- off probation and not having to deal with surprise calls from the new POs on their way to make a home visit, etc.

Anonymous said...

So it seems this falls into the "debtor's prison" category.

Anonymous said...

Another noteworthy instance of the "gouging the poor" phenomenon is the Texas Supreme Court's recent decision that the Tarrant County District Clerk cannot charge indigent parties in a divorce suit for non-existent court costs. What's pitiful is not just that Thomas A. Wilder, the clerk, thought this was a good idea in the first place, but that the county then spent money and time litigating the issue up to the TX Supreme Court. But it was good to see former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson representing some of the divorcing parties.

Anonymous said...

You pathetic idiots, this is all a bi-product of tax cuts championed by republicans.

We must take this country back and execute every last person who ever voted republican. It's the "Only Solution"...

Anonymous said...

If you want a candid opinion of the justice system ask someone who's been through it. Most hardened street criminals will tell you it's far easier to take a plea for say 2-3 years in prison versus 10 years probation. Why, because it's easier to do prison time and be done with it, than to attempt 10 years of probation restrictions, which they know they cannot do, and end up in jail or prison anyway.

Anonymous said...

That study out of Bell County was interesting. What it doesn't mention, however, is that in many CSCDs (especially the smaller departments), POs are threatened and punished when probationers are unable to pay their fees. Arbitrary collection minimums are set and if a caseload doesn't meet that minimum (regardless of the circumstances of the offenders on that caseload), the officer fails a "minimum performance objective" and threatened with being fired. There are great officers leaving this field because administrators are taking this ridiculous approach to fill the budget gap the Lege created when they decided to poorly fund probation to build up the prisons.

Anonymous said...

Departments are reliant on fee collections, and they always have been/will be until an alternative funding system is established. Given the current nature of the State's reserves (i.e. dropping fuel prices), it's unlikely to change in the near future.

There are 3 populations in probation relative to fees; those who pay, those who can't pay, and those who chose not to pay. It's disheartening to have a client who does everything they can to abide by the financial conditions, while another choses not to do so. The latter is observed with new cell phones, jewelry, electronic equipment, etc. during office and field visits.

We try to focus on what can be done to get people to the point where they can pay fees. No minimum amounts are established, and the client caseloads are taken into consideration. However, just as there is individual accountability with clients, such is the case with officers. They need to ensure that they are working toward bettering the circumstances of the clients who are unable and holding accountable those who are able but unwilling.

There is so much good being done in probation, and it's unfortunate that the funding system exists. Focusing on the individual circumstances of the client in all areas (not just financially) should be the goal.

Anonymous said...

In Texas, adult probation has always been underfunded and dependent on the payment of the probation fee. The funding formula levels from the State are static, have been static for decades. Only about 40% of any given probation department's operating coasts are funded by the state of Texas. There has been an increase of grant funds from the state through the community justice assistance division in the form of diversion programs, but the money allotted vs. the strings tied to the award almost make it not worth it to apply for the funds. Additionally, the awarded amount is usually not enough to cover the salary of an employee.

The entry level salary of the probation officer is less than virtually all other human service professionals. The way things are going with funding levels, probation departments are eventually not going to be able to hire degreed personnel.

No one really understands Adult Probation. Not even most legislators. Not even most judges and it is the judges who approve adult probation's budgets. Because of the autonomy with adult probation departments, even the regulatory body - the community justice assistance division doesn't really understand adult probation. With 254 counties, 122 departments, and no telling how many prosecutors and judges, how could they understand?

Even though it is most likely stated with sarcasm, it is telling when the Bell County chief probation officer says he would choose prison over probation.

The Comedian said...

Another example of raising taxes without raising taxes, just like our mobile tax collectors AKA highway patrol units. When will POs start taking MasterCard, VISA, etc.? Or are they already? When will probation departments start hiring collection agencies to dun their clientele? Perhaps they will start using drones to chase down delinquent probationers. How about drones with credit card processors and cash or check deposit slots?

Collection drones with loudspeakers: "Attention Probationer! You owe $500 in probation fees and $100 for drone purchase and maintenance. Please make your deposit now or LegBreaker drone will be called for backup".

Anonymous said...

Nobody gets screwed like those on probation. Much better to accept a short sentence than to be managed like a piƱata stuffed with money.

Prison Doc

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous at 6:20 AM on 04/03/16, you have the right to call the state office at the Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD) who oversees adult probation in Texas and complain/file a grievance. It is illegal to charge supervision fees to any offender who is not being supervised because they are no longer on probation. The CSCD had no right to make your boyfriend pay any lump sum for supervision fees for an early release from supervision.

If there were any other outstanding fines or fees or restitution, those may be collected, but supervision fees may not be. This is why when offenders die on supervision, the probation departments cannot collect supervision fees. If you have documentation this occurred, contact CJAD and let them know the county, department, etc., and ensure you have some proof that these were paid. If your boyfriend has a printout of what all he paid and where the payments were applied, this should suffice.

Best of Luck

Anonymous said...

In Taylor County, (Abilene), Director Mike Wolfe threatens officers who do not collect at least 91% of fees each month. This also includes denying vacation time.
In addition, defendants that pay each month are not reprimanded for positive UA's or failing to attend Substance Abuse Counseling.
The department needs to be audited.

Anonymous said...

Collins County Probation makes mistakes and to cover there mistake they will put a warrant out for your arrest. Conspiracy and corruption.

I received a call from a woman stating she was with Collin County community supervision. The woman on the phone stated that I needed to return to Texas because my paperwork was incorrectly submitted she wouldnt give a reason or a resolution as to why I needed to return other than if I didnt there would be a warant issued for my arrest. I later found out that the probation office made a mistake regarding the process. On April 4th I was released from jail. Im not from Texas I flew in to turn myself in and once released I had no where to go. I stayed in the lobby at the jail from 12am until Tuesday when I met with Robert Nicholson who gave me permission to come home. Ive had several things happen while in custody at the Collin County Detention center. 1st I was released in error I complied and returned to jail now its a mistake on how they processed my paperwork and if I don't return by their date they are threatening to revoke my probation. I am hoping that someone in Collin County will help me with whats going on. My purpose for turning myself in was to put this behind me and be able to move forward with my life. I have not been allowed to do that with all the "mistakes" no one wants to take accountability for. I have a 15 year old son who relys on me soley for support his father is not involved and I dont seek assistance from government agencies. I actually work very hard and take pride in raising and being able to provide for my only son. When I left in Feburary I wasnt sure how long I would be away from him and I honestly Thank God that I wasnt taken away from my son for a longer period of time. Im asking that someone in the this County is able to help me with being able to move forward. I need to be able to have some normalcy,peace and stability for my son which Im not able to do because of the "mistakes" made. Ive done everything to comply with what has been demanded of me. I didnt leave the state without permission I was granted permission by your office via travel pass. I do not have a residence nor can I afford to get a hotel for an unspecified amount of time in Texas. The probation officers and suprrvisor Woolridge,Pharr and Nicholson have advised me to stay at a shelter. So I have to stay in a shelter instead of my house because of a mistake they made? I just got back to work and my job will not grant me another extended leave I will be let go. It will be impossible to find a job that will trust a Felon for Theft. Its like double jeapordy if I dont have a job I cant pay the fine and you guys will again put me in jail. Is there anyone who understands that this isnt fair or doesnt make sense? If it matters to anyone I am a felon I did the crime, did the time and now I want to pay this fine complete this community service and the class and move forward. When will I be given this chance? I have a son who is amazing No trouble at all. Please don't ruin my sons future by taking me away from him again. He needs me more now than ever. Im definitely being set up to fail and no one seems to think this is wrong or that I should even be apologized to or compensated. Im begging for help please help me.

Thank You,
Person from California