Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Probation Fines Contribute to "Debtor's Prison" Problem in Texas

The University of Minnesota's Robina Institute has just published a new study on the probation system in Bell County, Texas.  It sheds light on yet another piece of the "debtor's prison" issue.  The report details the causes of probation revocations and the role that fines play in straining, and even ruining, probationers lives.

The authors conducted 43 interviews of probationers, probation officials, judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors in the Bell County.  What the report uncovers is that judge are seen to impose probation conditions that inadvertently set people up for failure by being too onerous and not taking into account a person's unique circumstances.

The report concludes:"The picture [this study] paints is one of a complex system, tasked with ensuring that those under supervision abide by a lengthy list of conditions and remain crime-free, all while working within the realities of probationers' daily lives."

More distressing is the fact that the legislature's penchant for extracting money from criminal defendants has turned probationer officers into "bill collectors."  The report states: "Though many of the probationers had limited financial means, the probation system in Bell County--and across the state--is largely funded by probationers' fees, turning probation officers into "bill collectors" to finance the system and burdening the probationers who already struggle with financial instability."

Another new report by the Robina Institute also finds that the United States has a "mass probation" problem as compared to Europe, similar to the mass incarceration problem with which we are more familiar.

Taken together, the two reports mean that the state's use of high probation fines over many years destabilizes people's lives, AND that we do this to an alarming number of people.


Gadfly said...

Very interesting. Any reason why they chose Bell County to study?

And, will any of this appear in the Waco Trib or the TDT?

Anonymous said...

Why is it every time there is a great topic, you use some podunk county story and statistics? Harris County, Texas is a HUGE violator of this Debtors Prison issue with 10 times as many jail inmates and a 100 times the revenue, er I mean fines for probation violations. When the probationers can't make the fines and fees, because a flipping burgers salary can't sustain it; they use every Peace officer in the State of Texas to collect the body of the probationer by issuing a criminal warrant for their arrest. You do know about technical violations, don't you?

Gadfly said...

Anonymous, first, Grits has written repeatedly about Harris County. You must not be a regular reader.

Second, because, in this case, the study wasn't about Harris County. Hello??

Anonymous said...

They wanted to extend my felony probation a year for not paying. After 7years on paper then one extra after I went to safep , for 8 years on probation they wanted me to sign an extra year. I was lucky to not pay i am on disable checks maybe that helped. Its true I owed over 7000 ..I couldn't pay and then 62 dollars an month times 12 ill never be free from payment ever

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Gadfly, fwiw, this post was written by Sandra Guerra Thompson, a U of Houston law prof and Grits contributing writer. I don't know why Bell County was highlighted but the second linked report is getting national play. So far, they're both TL,DR - I'm busy doing some volunteer work this week - but I'm going to try to look at them over the weekend.

At anon 9:03, it's true I've been complaining about similar issues in Harris for a while, at least since this series of posts.

@ anon 3:41, I'm sorry to hear that. It sometimes seems like they're setting folks up to fail with all the stuff they add on to probation (and now, even pretrial releasees) then bill the probationer for.

Anonymous said...

IMHO as a criminal defense attorney, the professionals in the system spend too little effort on ascertaining what people can actually pay. When representing clients facing fines & fees, I talk to them in advance, inquire about what the fees will be, and help the client figure out a budget. I then make proposals to the court, which are almost always accepted because, when faced with a handful of paystubs and bills, and a calculation about how much slack (if any) the individual has available, many courts will be reasonable. But this is something that court staff and probation should help with, especially when presentence reports are done, and which is not routine practice among defense attorneys. And definitely an issue which judges don't seem to think about unless prompted. A standardized form/app for this sort of calculation (hello, Office of Court Administration?) could be very useful.

David Fernandez, Jr. said...

I have practiced law in Bell County for over 30 years. In my opinion he probation office is a collection agency for the county. Some of the judges and prosecutors are also a collection agency for the county.
Some of the felony court judges were requiring indigent defendants to repay the county for court appointed attorney's fees without making a determination that the indigent defendant was no longer indigent. I appealed a case and got a reversal where the judge had ordered a deaf indigent defendant to repay the county for court appointed attorney fees and psychologist fees. One of the other district court judges was also reversed on the same issue.
The result is that the Bell County district court judges no longer order indigent defendants to repay the county for court appointed attorney's fees unless they hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant is no longer indigent.
However, the county attorney regularly requires indigent defendants to repay the county for court appointed attorney's fees as part of the plea bargain. At least one county court at law judge regularly orders indigent defendants to repay court appointed fees without having a hearing to determine whether the defendant is no longer indigent. The minimum court appointed attorneys fee in Bell County for a misdemeanor is $300.00. An extra $300 to an indigent defendant in addition to fine, court costs, probation fees, etc. does set up indigent defendants for failure.

Anonymous said...

There's plenty of blame to share on this subject. The biggest villain is the State, which underfunds probation departments and forces them to rely upon probation fee collections to stay afloat financially. Since approximately $240 million are collected in probation fees annually across the state, do you think that the TDCJ will ask the Legislature to pick up that tab? Half of that tab? Not happening, brothers and sisters. Parole seems to be fully funded, however, or at least funded more equitably. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are many times not reluctant to reduce probation fees or even waive them, but how many of them are working pro bono? Ask the judge to waive court costs, and the district clerk goes catatonic. Probationers aren't off the hook, either. The standard probation fee around the state is $60/month, which equates to roughly $2.00 per day. I often ask probationers how they afford cigarettes, getting their nails done, dining out, etc., but not afford $2 per day for their freedom? If you think probation offices are living the high life, go out and visit a few. Many are working out of hand-me-down county buildings, with little or no security measures. I've known plenty of probation officers who worked second jobs, so they're not in the business to get rich. Bottom line: the State wants to do community supervision on the cheap, and makes the offenders pay the freight. Because the cost to do it correctly is more than the State is willing to pay, it won't be fixed any time soon. And yes, often we do feel like fee collectors instead of criminal justice professionals.

Anonymous said...

Follow da money.......

Anonymous said...

@ 11:05

You didn't even mention that probation department budgets are highly dependent upon a "projected" amount of probation fees "anticipated" to be collected when they begin their fiscal year.
AND in addition to court costs, probation fees, etc... there is the very high cost of sex offender counseling and polygraphing, every form of monitoring device, program participation fees, all of which offenders are required pay. If you don't pay for the service you get revoked for failing to complete the program, device, etc...

Anonymous said...

Well, we know the problem. What are the people going to do about it? The judicial system is broken and unjust.

Anonymous said...

This dam money hungry so called system is just raping the ones that are already so far down they will never get up, cant get a job because you have a felony of some kind or you cant keep a job because your car gets repo its a joke!!

Anonymous said...

Before I head over to read the report. While understanding they are busy, sadly, none of them mentioned one word in regards to the following fact(s) -
When a human is arrested (on a first time offense) and pleads Not Guilty, their so called Lawyer/CDL (hired, appointed doesn't matter) advises them to avoid or stop a jury trial in progress in order to Take-the-Plea.

Doing so, creates Probationers (aka: the 95% +/-, without any regards to the actual Guilt or Innocence of the accused. The jury is Let Go, thanked for their service, paid for showing up and parking validated. Leaving, thinking that he / she must be guilty as hell or he / she wouldn't have taking the plea. The alleged crime victim(s) assume that the real criminal(s) were caught and punished and the Insurance Co. pays off any claim. The suspect turned defendant turned convicted human, leaves the jail with one foot-in & one foot-out and becomes a target of future arrest(s) when he / she is confronted and asked - have you ever been arrested?, are you on probation / parole? Guilty or Not, it didn't matter then & and it damn sure don't matter when confronted by a so called, bad apple that's supervised by a bad apple.

All of this leads to a call for any of the following: -

*BAN the Bargain.

*One Plea per Cause Number.

*Mandatory Jury Trials for those that Plead Not Guilty

*If a CDL advises a 1st Time Offender or Probationer 'Client' that pleads Not Guilty to - avoid a jury trial, the PO should be listed as a Witness for the Defense in order for the 'Client' to confirm any & all reasons being advised to do so 'prior' to taking the plea. This alone would reduce the 95% significantly due to clients no longer being told (lies) that their Probation was automatically revoked upon arrest, despite a guilty or not verdict, they are going to prison.

*Mandatory Board Certification requirement 'prior' to practicing Criminal Defense (Felony & Misd). Including: Consultations.

*If a Jury is Let Go while in the process of participating in a jury trial at any point 'after' the very first Ready for Trial notice is filed, they should be exempt from being compensated. After about one month, folks will stop allowing themselves to be utilized as pawns on the front end (voir dire) vs. wasting valuable time playing musical chairs with fellow voters & taxpayers.

Anonymous said...

Prosecution in Bell County is atrocious. While the DA's office and the individual prosecutors are competent, there appears to be an institutionalized refusal policy and those cases that are prosecuted; often find the easy way out with a reduced plea and probation $$. They need a new DA.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the money game, then there are the other 11 things on the rules for probation.
Classes, which you have to pay for, and the community service, which is nothing more than slave labor, that certain organizations can get from the judges. All part of the pay to play political games.