Saturday, April 25, 2009

Probation fees a sleeper issue, barrier to success of reforms

At a moment in history where more than 10% of adult Texans have outstanding arrest warrants, the ever growing array of increasingly unmanageable fines for low level offenses and fees for probationers is a mundane "sleeper" issue, one that may have profound implications in particular for how well the probation-centered de-incarceration reforms approved by the Texas Legislature in 2007 work in the long term.

This subject of onerous fees too seldom rises to a high enough priority level, I'm afraid, even on this blog. But with every new legislative session, probationers suffer from a death from a thousand cuts, and every new fee and fine makes it less likely they'll be able to successfully complete court-ordered community supervision.

The most egregious example is the Orwellian-named Driver Responsibility Program, especially the high fines for DWI offenders - it suffers about a 70% noncompliance rate! Similarly, rates of restitution payments are strikingly low in part because the amount of restitution expected from low-income defendants is frequently unrealistic in the first place.

Every two years in Texas, more nickel and dime fees are added onto probationers' plates until we've reached the point where, for many, it's unrealistic to expect them to pay. After all, most of these folks, carrying a criminal record, don't qualify for high paying jobs and a felony record precludes them from many occupations. It doesn't matter, though; the Lege just keeps tacking on fees.

I mention this after noticing a bunch of bills in this vein moving through the process, starting with one by Rep. Paula Piereson attaching a new $50 fee for probationers who are required to do community service. Similarly, version of Sen. Dan Patrick's DNA database expansion bill that passed out of the Senate includes a new $34 fee to cover the costs of processing DNA tests.

According to the criminal justice impact statement, HB 666 by Gutierrez "would increase the court cost on the conviction of certain intoxication and drug offenses from $50 to $60 and make it applicable to any offense classified as a Class B misdemeanor or higher that falls within specified offenses types, including assault, arson, robbery, burglary, theft, fraud, weapons, and intoxication."

A bill that passed out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and is waiting in Calendars, HB 2389 by Hernandez lards on more fees for alcohol offenses, creating "a $50 breath alcohol testing program fee as a court cost for persons if convicted of one of seven Penal Code offenses: Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), Driving While Intoxicated with a Child Passenger, Flying While Intoxicated, Boating While Intoxicated, Assembling or Operating an Amusement Ride While Intoxicated, Intoxication Assault, or Intoxication Manslaughter. It would allow counties to retain $5 of each fee collected for administrative costs," according to the fiscal note.

Another bill that's out of committee makes mandatory use of "ignition interlocks" for all DWI probationers and makes them pay for the costs. A bill requiring electronic monitoring for registered sex offenders requires them all to pay for the equipment. Another bill that passed out of committee in the Senate would authorize arrest for someone who is able to pay for monitoring costs, in the view of the court, but fails to do so.

Maybe it sounds petty to complain about a $50 additional fee, but my real complaint is the overarching trend. We see more of these fees literally every session, and probationers already owe fines, court costs, probation department fees, restitution and can be required to pay for their own drug or alcohol treatment and testing. If they don't pay the mounting fees, fines and costs, they face revocation or at least an array of intermediate sanctions, none of which are themselves free to the taxpayers.

These costs partially explain why so many defendants actually choose jail over probation for many low-level offenses, even though it costs the taxpayers much more. When that happens, or if they're revoked to prison, the state all of a sudden must foot ALL their costs, so surely it makes sense to invest the much smaller amounts on the front end if it means not overburdening probationers with fees to the point they cannot succeed?

It won't happen in the 81st Legislature, but somewhere down the line - perhaps in an interim charge by one of the relevant committees - this issue needs to be studied in more detail and the issue of probation fees rationalized. If we as a society believe that police protection, criminal adjudication and the incarceration of people for crimes is a primary role of government, then we need to pay for those functions with tax dollars and stop larding on ever-higher pile of debts onto people who largely can't afford them.

You can't squeeze blood from a stone, the saying goes, and trying doesn't make us any safer. In fact, it can contribute to probationers' sense that the system is so slanted against their success they should just stop trying, contributing to despair and, ultimately, to recidivism.


Anonymous said...

grits - where would one go to see statistics on the number or percentage of revocations by county?

Probation fees are plowed back into CSCD budgets. Used to be about 65% state funded and 35% county (from probation fees. Don't know percentages currently but fees are a #1 priority for most departments.

We used to laugh seeing the conveyor belt "reporting" of probationers who'd come in, pay their fees, talk to the PO if he was there and be out of the office in about 6 or 7 minutes. Some supervision, huh?

Anonymous said...

It's certainly not petty on your part to complain about these fees and you are certainly right to call attention to this once again.

It's a no brainer that most of these fees cannot or will not be paid.

The end result is more jail space taken.

When will this madness end.

Anonymous said...

Those fees are ridiculous!! How the hell are they suppose to pay for their beer and cigarettes with those unbelievable fees!

Amerloc said...

The bad part of it, to me, is that the folks who can actually afford to pay the fees are also the ones who prefer to pay the lawyers who help them avoid the conviction in the first place.

The worse part of it is that the contents of your wallet apparently determines the degree to which you are entitled to equal protection under the law.

The worst? It's just another regressive tax, and they don't have the wherewithall to admit it.

Anonymous said...


Everytime a probationer reports in to make a payment this county charges the probationer $2.00 to make the payment.

So, to pay.... you have to pay $2 dollars to pay???

Crazy huh??

Anonymous said...

What happened to basing payment ability on sliding scales rather than just one amount for all? One size does not fit all. I believe probationers need to make efforts at restitution and fees. What happened to accountability for people's actions? Being on probation and reporting isn't that big a pain for some. There has to be balance. Make probationers be accountable but be reasonable and realistic in expectations.

Anonymous said...

If they can afford a car, and gas for the car, I believe it is safe to assume they can pay a 50 fee to resume driving that car. Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

09:34:00 PM

The Answer: Bexar County. I know I am right, I just finished paying them! Almost $6,000.... :(
And guess what? I don't feel sorry for the people with DWI's that have to pay 50 bucks for interlock. That is the price you pay for a guilty man to be "free".

Anonymous said...

You right 9:34! That Chief in Bexar is a hoot. I think the $2.oo is to pay off his six pending lawsuits.

Bexar has a 50 dollar crime stoppers fee, 20 ua fee ( but you pay 6 at the lab),supervision fees, fine, rest.,court costs, court appointed attorney fee, and class fees.

But the kicker is the 2 dollars to pay.

Anonymous said...

You are right. The State Of Texas should focus on spending some dollars on drug rehabs and recovery places that really help people to turn around. We just pass them in and out charging money and they can not pay most of the time. Other states have prisons that have inmates in them for drug problems only, no others just ones with drug problems in certain ones. With drugs on every conner some people do not have a chance. These people do have an illness, but there is no real treatment for them. People are helped with cancer. It is no different. People with cancer need help to get well, so do people with drug problem. Build more recovery places and less jails and prison! I had a brother that was a counseler in a prison and they did not want him teaching some things on recovery. What about that. Texas is drowning in drugs and it get worse every day. It is the main cause of crime. We are spending the money to jail people why not spend it to help people that would really turn around if they had real help. Only the ones with lots of money or insurance can get the help. I think the fees are a money game for the lawyers, jails, county and so on. We need to lobby for treatment centers.

Anonymous said...

This basically makes county jails "debtors prison" when you owe the county your fees.
What about the state approved slave labor, or "community service" as they call it?
The judges get to pimp out their probationers to worthy causes for free labor.

Anonymous said...

Is it not still the law that the prosecutor has to prove that the probationer had the money to pay his financial obligations but willfully failed to do so?

Anonymous said...

Anon at 12:06 commented that, "If they can afford a car, and gas for the car, I believe it is safe to assume they can pay a 50 fee to resume driving that car. Just a thought..."


Only wish it was as simple as that. An example. Local SO stopped a car who took a corner a bit fast, found that he had an outstanding warrant for failing to pay the state a few hundred dollars to un-suspend his license which had previously been suspended for driving with no insurance. Currently had new insurance but was delivering pizzas to earn enough to pay the state the three hundred buck outstanding fee when he was stopped. Car impounded, booked into jail and the process starts all over again. Stuck on a treadmill...and somebody didn't get their pizza that night! But the deputy got an arrest for his personal monthly stat sheet. And you and me? We lost a deputy from the streets for a few hours and are stuck paying for the jail-time.

There has got to be a better way.

Anonymous said...

This is rather disgusting! I watched the Senate Hearing The 23rd and Senator Whitmire was the only Senator in the hearing. He was asking people who were leaving to see if anyone in the hallway even resembled a Senator and ask them to come into the Hearing.

We vote for these people to represent us and the things we consider important and they don't even attend the hearings for the bills that have been written and need a hearing before voted on. Something is wrong with this picture and we, "The People", need to get a refrendum to make term limits and set a time for each to sit in the chair; when that time has been reached they should not be allowed to seek office again. Maybe this would stop this nonsense both in Texas and in DC. I for one am tired of the bull being fed to all of us by our Legislators who want to draw the pay, get the insurance and the benefits, but not represent us. Let's get together and do something about the lack luster attitudes of elected officials who do not give a damn!!

Anonymous said...

I think you are all beating a dead horse! I have not an ounce of faith in our politicians to do anything remotely positive that might help those people that are incarcerated to become constructive, contributing members of society.

They are all still on their "tough on crime" mantra. And if these people are locked up away from society, it's out of site out of mind.

If anyone honestly thinks that these politicians really give a damn about keeping people out of prisons versus keeping them locked up I respectfully think you all are delusional.

The people that contribute to these people being elected into office are the same people that wants to lock people in jail/prison and throw away the key. When was the last time an ex-offender contributed any money to these politicians? Money talks!

Anonymous said...

Wah..Wha...Wah...groan and moan! Why shouldn't people who break the law be responsible for the cost?

1) $2 transaction fee is charged in Dallas also and it is my understanding it is approved state-wide.

2) Money is only one part of the probation officer's concern when meeting with a probationer and it is ultimately up to the Judge to decide whether a client will be revoked. Money is usually just one of numerous violations on a motion to revoke or proceed. With the exception of some restitution cases (money owed to an individual) in 20 years I have never seen a Judge send someone to jail or to prison for being poor.

3) Lobby for treatment...give me a break....I'll take all the beds you can give me but let's start preaching personal responsibility.....Treatment only provides the tools ...the individual HAS TO CHOOSE TO USE THEM!!!

4) Finally, laughing about a probationer getting in and out of the office in 6-7 are obviously not part of the solution!!!

Unless you are a probation office you don't know what you are talking about....most (not all I will admit) are caring individuals who are trying to wear many hats at the same time. They are trying to get the appropriate treatment fo the drug user, protect the public from the sex offender, get treatment for the alcoholic at the same time trying to protect the public from another drunken driver. Most of them do this because they want to help, they want to feel they did something to contribute to the community because it is certainly not the big salaries.

It would be great to not have to charge anyone for anything but that's not the real world.....leave it to the Judge's to decide who made the good faith effort to comply with all conditions and who did not.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:58 writes: "Why shouldn't people who break the law be responsible for the cost?"

They should where that's a practical option, but fees have increased to the point where for many it's impractical and much of the time the expectation is unrealistic in the real world.

Your other comments ignore most of the actual critiques in the post to complain about your personal hobby horses. I never said probationers shouldn't pay fees. I said those fees shouldn't be increased in a knee jerk fashion every single session until they're too high for many people to pay.

Anonymous said...

The Leg sets these fees, for the most part, in an effort to balance their budget. Court costs, or the main part collected for court costs, are remanded by the counties to the state. Any added costs are also remanded to the state and the sole fees collected by the CSCD kept by the CSCD are supervisory fees and an administrative fee of $2.00 if they collect same! Restitution is paid to the victim. Adding more and more fees to persons placed under supervision, at this time, in this economy, mandating Interlock systems for all DWI offenders is merely rewarding the lobbyists for the Interlock devices themselves! As Grits said, you can't get blood out of a stone and indigent offenders may not be placed in jail if they can prove inability to pay, and most jurisdictions, if they have any sense at all, continue to work with offenders regardless of their ability to pay and continue to attempt to employ offenders in lieu or incarcerating them. Adding more fees only exagerates the problem and makes the legislature appear that they are actually doing something about crime!

Jim said...

I counted the other day, and there were 40 different type of fees a person on probation could actually pay, if they were required to pay them all. Adding yet another couple of fees will surely keep the jails full by the sheer number of offenders opting for jail time, rather than probation. Should make the prosecutors happy.

Anonymous said...

i think space invaders abducted jim.

Carl Reynolds said...

We have begun to examine this issue, see our report at

Carl Reynolds
Office of Court Administration

Anonymous said...

Every two years in Texas, more nickel and dime fees are added onto probationers' plates until we've reached the point where, for many, it's unrealistic to expect them to pay. After all, most of these folks, carrying a criminal record, don't qualify for high paying jobs and a felony record precludes them from many occupations. It doesn't matter, though; the Lege just keeps tacking on fees.

most of these folks are making more then us porbation officers. what the hell are the chief's doing with this nickle and diming - it sure is not making its way to line officers. then they say we have no money for raises. yea right,ms kathy budget director with 20 yrs experence. whom i migh say does not belive in a false positive.

Anonymous said...

It's about not the fees, it's about taking "the deal".
When the defendant is offered "the deal" (go to prison or take the probation deal and get out of jail now)they are not told about all these fees (nor do they care).
The big justice machine doesn't sit down and explain the intricacies of the deal like a civil contract lawyer. The machine just spits them out on the street and looks for someone else to feed the machine.

Anonymous said...

I am not on probation but, I could be and it would be all my fault. I got a speeding ticket in a small town and simply forgot to pay it. Because I forgot, they tacked on failures to appear and other things and I ended up owing 1100.00. By that time I was unemployed and helping take care of my elderly mother and I did not have the money to pay. Becaus I could not pay my license did not get renewed, my insurance company dropped me and nearly got my payed for vehicle repossesed because I used it to get a loan to pay off some other expenses. I couldn't get a job because I didn't have a license. I whempered about it but the bottom line is that the whole ordeal was 100% my fault, like it or not. I quit whempering, swallowed my pride, and borrowed the money to pay that darn ticket. I didn't like but I bet I won't be that negligent ever again. My back was totally against the wall and I'm just now getting my head above water. That little ticket ended up costing me much more than 1100.00 and I've learned my lesson. I'm just thankful that I didn't get picked up and taken to jail.

Anonymous said...

Cudos to you Anon 9:28.......I applaud and admire your determination to do the right thing even when it must have seemed so unfair and overwelming! Hope things have improved.

Sorry comments (4/26, 11:48) were geared more toward the posts than to your article and I did get off track from the original article. I agree that the monies can appear overwelming but note that not all fees pertain to all probationers; while the Judge may order them up front, many fees are waived during the probation period because of a probationers inability to pay. Also, conditions are reviewed as part of the PSI process so probationers do know up front what is expected.

I do understand the risk of a defendant being leary of agreeing to probation and we try to address those concerns in court before the plea.

Don't forget about all the required programs is just part of the problem. Unfortunately it is no longer good enough to "go forth and sin no more" drug eval (and follow any rec'd treatment), community service, Safe Neighborhood, Repeat Offenders, Anger Management, BIPP, Parenting, Anti-Theft, VIP etc...etc... But there again....not everyone has to do everything and the officers address these concerns in court and again in the field.

Hopefully I have stayed a little closer to the target tonight and thanks Grits...we enjoy your articles and read them regularly!

Anonymous said...

The main problem with probation in Texas is "probation overkill." The program requirements and financial obligations are completely unattainable goals for many probationers. We need to dumb it down. Does anyone know any dumb_sses in the lege who-by nature of their own limited perspicacity-are familiar with the concept?