Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Economic concerns misplaced on probation fees

A fascinating debate took place on the floor of the Texas House yesterday that bodes well, I think, for proposed community supervision reforms in that chamber. (You can watch it here, beginning at the 3:52 mark.) Speaker Pro Tem Sylvester Turner brought HB 312, which is really a rather small bill that transfers the burden of proof from defense to the state in indigency determinations for purposes of revoking probation.

In other words, before they could revoke someone to prison for non-payment of fees, the bill would make prosecutors prove based on a preponderance of the evidence that someone could have paid fees but refused to do so.

The final vote was tight - 81 for and 63 against. But what gave me particular hope was the substance of the debate. With the exception of Rep. Dan Gattis (whose opposition was more measured and on point - he wasn't worried about money, he said, but "muddying" the code), opponents of the bill spoke against it arguing from a basic misunderstanding of who pays what, when, and why regarding probationers, fees, and revocations.

Rep. Jim Jackson, in particular, was dissatisfied with Rep. Turner's assurances that the District and County Attorneys Association had signed off on the bill with the addition of a floor amendment. He said the real interest that should be at the table was the Texas Association of Counties who pay attorneys, gather probation fees, etc. Jackson and Rep. Larry Phillips appeared primarily concerned about costs to county taxpayers when probationers don't pay fees and court costs, implying that HB 312 was really some sort of unfunded mandate to local government.

Such concerns are missplaced, and I think if the economics of crime and punishment were better understood by House members, support for the bill would have been much wider. Here are the key points Reps Jackson and Phillips were missing:

When probationers are revoked, counties STOP receiving fees entirely, forever. Offenders who can't pay this month might be able to pay next month. Offenders revoked to prison for an average of 4.3 years (an average cost of $66,000 at current rates of $42 per day) won't be able to pay the county ANYTHING. Revoking offenders costs taxpayers money, not only to incarcerate them in prisons but also by relinquising any county claim on fee revenue.

Besides, as a taxpayer it hardly matters to me which branch of government spends my money - if counties shift costs to the state, it still comes out of my pocket. Probation costs a little over $2 per day; incarceration costs $42. If their only new offense is indigency, I'd rather my taxes finance the lesser expense for the same person, whatever level of government pays for it.

Jackson and Phillips' myopic focus on fees, Rep. Terri Hodge pointed out, isn't just economically misplaced, it actually threatens public safety, which should be the bigger overarching concern of the justice system rather than money. The threat of incarceration for non-payment of fees potentially could lead indigent defendants to commit new crimes to pay probation costs and keep from being incarcerated. If a probationer successfully paid their fees because they burglarized my house and pawned my stuff, that defeats the purpose. That's why debtors prisons, as Rep. Lon Burnam pointed out on the floor, are such a bad idea.

The bill would affect only a small number of offenders - those with no additional violations beyond failure to pay fees. Rep. Gattis claimed that "never" happened except as part of plea agreements; according to Rep. Hodge, about 1% of probation revocations occur for failure to pay fees. So we're talking about between 0 and 1% of probation revocations - a bill that only affects the margins, at best.

To bottom line this: It's worrying to see so many members opposing Rep. Turner's bill, but emcouraging, also, that the terms of debate are essentially on the cost issues that most benefit proponents of reform. Though they didn't seem to realize it, Jackson, Phillips and Co. were arguing for higher costs to taxpayers and worsened public safety outcomes. With luck, debates over major legislation still to come on these topics will help educate members better to avoid knee-jerk opposition based on factually mistaken analyses.

UPDATE: HB 312 finally passed the House (5/1) and now heads to the Senate. Perhaps a short cooling off period gave members a chance to read the bill and consider their constituents' best interests. On third reading, Rep. Turner picked up a whopping 42 additional votes, passing his bill on a final tally of 123 ayes to 20 nays. Even Reps Jackson and Phillips, who vigorously opposed HB 312 yesterday, supported the bill on final passage. Here's the list of hard-line holdouts; if one of them is your state rep, call to let them know you wish they'd voted the other way and hope they'll support other probation reforms the rest of the session:
Anderson(R); Aycock(R); Bohac(R); Callegari(R); Cook, Robby(D); Crownover(R); Flynn(R); Gattis(R); Hardcastle(R); Harless(R); Hilderbran(R); Jones, Delwin(R); Latham(R); Macias(R); Miller(R); O'Day(R); Otto(R); Paxton(R); Phillips(R); Van Arsdale(R)


Anonymous said...

The catch phrase "perponderance of evidence" is always carefully hidden behind the curtain when dealing with TDCJ or the parole and probation offices. One only needs to read a few grievances where the powers that be always used the term "perponderance of evidence" as the excuse to uphold a punishment that is costly to taxpayers and devastating to offenders. The offender can have enough perponderance of evidence to fill a file cabinet and they are still found guilty of an offense. The state does not need to reveal their perponderance of evidence as it is assumed they are always right and offenders are always wrong.
Those on parole more often than not, have a difficult time finding meaningful employment. This creates a huge problem when it comes time pay their monthly parole fees, often choosing between eating rather than paying. The amounts are insignificant to those who earn a good wage, but to someone unable to earn high wages, it can mean the difference between freedom and revocation.
Amazingly enough, the day a parolee is discharged from parole all remaining fees are forgiven. No more payments are required. It is my contention that the parole fees are not about relieving the burden on taxpayers, rather, they are another way this system can send someone back to prison.

Anonymous said...

With 22+ years as a probation officer in Bexar County, I've never seen a probationer sent to TDC soley for failure to pay fees! If this happens on a regular basis in this state I'd be very surprised.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@anon10:20 - exactly! This was a small bill. Thats a big reason I think the opposition misunderstood the issue.

Anonymous said...

However Grits- What you may be interested to know is in Fitzgerald Land better known as Bexar County us underpaid probation officers are evaluated on the percentage of money we collect. If it is under a certain amount then we get a bad evaluation. Also we have a top ten list for collections. Winner gets a parking space and a trophy. So all the new officers squeeze the defendants for money to promote their careers. Who is thinking about public safety or the tax payer here. I think we are robbing Peter who will pay Paul even more taxpayer money. We would love to tell the judges but they do not listen to us????

Anonymous said...

I have made a proposal to the Bexar County administrators at the probation level that could be very beneficial for the entire State of Texas.

I propose a new way of doing business in Texas by passing a new law and/or rule change in regards to offenders payments.

The court at the time of sentencing can stipulate any fees, court costs, restitution, administrative fees, drug testing fees that are unpaid at the time of termination of probation be converted to a judgment lien. This will lower our recidivism rates tremendously, and officers can concentrate of the safety of the community instead of being a "department of collections." Meanwhile back at the ranch, the court could give an administrative order with the same language for all defendants currently on supervision. If Texas did this state wide, we could generate millions of dollars in savings from a reduction of court hearings, filed violation reports, and reduction of administrative costs in processing defendants on bond, pre-trial, and other release bonds. This revenue will generate a positive cash flow from the offenders who can actually be accountable for the crimes they commit. These dues could come from tax refunds, sale of property, or simply the person obtaining a better job and having the ability to pay.

This has worked in other states and will reduce the need for arrest in order to process the violation hearings.


1. Reduction in jail population.
2. Reduction in violation hearings.
3. Frees up bed space in jails for violent offenders.
4. Reduction in paper in the processing of violation reports and reduction of man-hours.
5. Income will be generated in the millions of dollars annually from the liens and reduce costs to taxpayers.
6. Funds could fund probation departments, work release centers, and costly treatment facilities.
7. Give Texas and each county a surplus of revenue each year.
8. Offenders can take ownership of the crimes they commit by being accountable.


Bryan Shreve