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Fewer offenders paying user fees

April 5, 2017

Miami County chief probation officer Susan Rice describes her department’s financial health in stark terms.

“We’re poor,” she said.

The poverty has been brought on by a money crunch linked to a decrease in user fee payments. These fees are charged for programs and services that offenders must participate in as part of their sentences. The funds offenders pay are used to cover the bulk, if not all, of the cost of running a probation department, including salaries, travel expenses, training and office supplies.

At one point, the Miami County Probation Department had a surplus of roughly $300,000 from the fees it was bringing in. But as the economy faltered and the county cut its budget, the department had to dip deeper and deeper into its reserve.

The surplus is now depleted and collection of fees is dropping. In 2013, $132,426 in user fees was collected. But by 2016, that amount had dropped to $99,742, and to date in 2017, collections are down $10,000 from this same time last year.

Probation departments across Indiana, which are heavily dependent on user fees, are facing the same problem as Miami County. The number of offenders able to pay has dropped substantially and departments are struggling to continue paying officers and maintain services.

Departments do not foresee any chance of the situation correcting itself. They contend to continue operating, the state is going to have to start supplementing their budgets or they may have to cut personnel.

“In my opinion, we’re dealing with a population in probation that just doesn’t have that kind of money,” said Linda Brady, chief probation officer in Monroe County and president of the Probation Officers Professional Association of Indiana Inc. “At some point, offenders just can’t continue to support this.”

Shifting the burden

County governments and taxpayers like user fees because they ease the burden on local budgets and are seen as meeting public sentiment that offenders should pay for the treatment, education and rehabilitation programs because they’re using them.

Reasons vary for the decline in fee collection, but the economy is a primary driver. Manufacturing jobs around the state are dwindling and positions in the service sector do not pay as much, so offenders either can’t find a job and have no income, or barely make enough to cover living expenses, let alone additional charges that come with a conviction.

Another driver arises from the criminal justice system itself. As part of the state’s revamped criminal code, courts are diverting low- and mid-level defendants from the Indiana Department of Correction into county jails where they can get more help overcoming their addictions. Coupled with this is an increase in programs, so not every offender is being sent to probation.

Rice and her officers have noticed a reduction in the length of time offenders are sentenced to probation. In the past, a defendant might have been ordered to serve one year on probation which would have cost $270, but now, the Miami County probation staff is seeing individuals getting 60 or 180 days on probation, which significantly reduces the fee.

Adam McQueen, assistant chief probation officer in Wayne County, noted as the number of people sent to probation is flatlining, the costs of running the department are increasing. Historically, probation departments experienced high turnover rates among their employees, but now the profession is viewed as a career. Many officers are staying longer, so salaries are rising.

Finally, probation departments say among the offenders who cannot afford the fees is a group who choose not to pay. These individuals know with jail overcrowding and the push to keep certain criminals out of the DOC, nothing will happen if they skip out on their bill.

Indiana probation departments are typically funded through user fees and grants. Some receive money from their local counties. But to secure their finances, many want the state to step in and cover the officers’ salaries and benefits.

“I think what the state and the Legislature are telling us is they don’t want all these people in jail for a substance abuse problem,” Rice said. “I agree with that. But if they want us to do that, then there has got to be money that comes with that.”

Constitutional constraints

The list of fees evolved incrementally over many years. At 38 pages, the Indiana Trial Court Fee Manual categorizes the different programs and costs, plus whether the funds stay in the county or go to state coffers.

Some of the costs are a flat amount, like the deferred prosecution fee of $120. Others are left to the court’s discretion, such as with the alcohol and drug services program fee that can be as high as $400. Also, programs such as home detention and probation charge an initial fee then require the offender to make a monthly payment.

Once someone enters the court system, the fees begin mounting. Rice noted a drunken-driving charge can quickly cost the offender $1,000 or more.

For those who have the ability to pay, Indiana Supreme Court Chief Administrative Officer Mary Willis sees the fees as beneficial in teaching personal responsibility. Yet she noted it can be difficult to determine who can pay, how much they can pay, and who cannot pay.

In Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), the Supreme Court of the United States set a limit on the collection of fees and fines. It ruled states violate the Equal Protection Clause when they hold individuals in jail because they cannot pay. Yet, the court carved out an exception for offenders who have the means to satisfy the debt but willfully do not.

Keeping offenders in jail for nonpayment may not ease the financial burden on the judicial system but Keith Barry, chief probation officer in Washington County, pointed out the pain caused by the money crunch has been made more acute by the Legislature’s decision to revamp the state’s criminal code.

Low- and high-risk drug offenders are kept in the local communities where the goal is to provide them with addiction and mental health treatment. However, Barry said the evidence-based practices require probation officers spend more time with the higher-level felons on top of appearing in court and preparing reports.

“How do we implement that without funds?” Barry asked.

The financial situation forced Barry’s department to reduce drug screening. Clients on probation are expected to call into an automated system which will randomly select individuals to test for illegal substances. With offenders not paying the fee which covers the cost of supplies and testing, Barry has dialed back the number of times people are screened.

More than a probation headache

Community Corrections departments are also feeling the financial squeeze.

Lindon Dodd, executive director of Clark County Community Corrections, said programs like work release and home detention enable an offender to reintegrate into society before being released from jail and reduces recidivism.

But easing them back into the community comes with a cost. In Clark County, Dodd’s department was owed $487,909 in fees in 2015, but offenders paid $313,417. In 2016, the fees charged reached $697,879 but just $372,158 was collected.

Like many probation and community correction departments around the state, Clark County does try to get participants to pay something. But, Dodd noted, his office cannot turn anyone away because they cannot afford the fee.

Vigo County Community Corrections has recently appealed to the county to cover the costs of sending an additional 30 people into the work release program. The department receives nothing from local government and draws about 56 percent of its revenue from user fees and nearly 44 percent from grants.

Bill Watson, director, described the fees as job creators. The money offenders pay for such things as electronic ankle monitoring bracelets funds staff positions in community corrections. Without that revenue stream, there would be fewer jobs.

Still, while departments need those fees to function, he does not believe offenders’ ability to pay should impact where they serve their sentence. “People should not go to prison or jail because they don’t have the money,” Watson said. “That should never happen.”•

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