BELTON — Houston Miller hustles to the exit door of the Bell County adult probation department, his blond ponytail flopping halfway down his back.
The 19-year-old must get to his new $8-an-hour shipping clerk job so he can pay $1,800 in fines, fees and court costs. He got busted with a pinch of pot.
“How will you pay that?” I ask when I catch up with him.
“Working Monday through Friday — and maybe overtime,” he answers.
Explaining his rush, he says, “I gotta pay $400 by the end of the month. I was under the impression that if I don’t pay, if you miss a payment, they can send you to jail for it.”
They’re not supposed to. That’s why I’m in Bell County, near the center of Texas.
Bell County was chosen for a study on how adult probation works in Texas. Turns out Bell County is a microcosm not only for Texas but also for the nation. A pay-or-go-to-jail mentality is causing problems, so much so that the U.S. Justice Department sent a rare letter to judges and court administrators across the nation last month urging them to avoid sending people to jail for failure to pay fines and fees, especially when they can’t afford it.
When the fees raise money for government but don’t contribute to public safety, the letter states, “they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents.”
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.
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.”
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.”
In response to the study findings, Jermstad enacted a new policy on when fees can be waived for financial reasons. One debt that can never be waived is court-ordered restitution. Victims must get paid back.
Ready to lobby
Rebecca Bernhardt says she will try to persuade state lawmakers next year to alter the funding so that probation officers can focus more on helping and less on bill collecting. She’s the executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project in Austin.
“We have a big challenge in Texas,” she says. “We have a lot of portions of the criminal justice system that are expected to fund themselves with fees. And it’s very dysfunctional.”
When people fail to pay and get sent to jail or prison, that costs the rest of us a lot more.