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.Lieber highlighted Bell County probation director Todd Jermstad's role in facilitating ground-level research by the Robina Institute:
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.
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.”See earlier Grits coverage of the Robina Institute study.
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.”