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Probation, Jail, and Money: Do You Know About Probation Fees in Texas?

After you are arrested here in Dallas or Fort Worth, or elsewhere in North Texas (or the rest of the state, for that matter), you’ve got a prosecutor wanting to maximize their case against you as best they can.

If you have a good criminal defense lawyer, then your attorney is going to be fighting hard to prevent you from becoming a victim of injustice.  Because the system can be very unjust.

The criminal justice system is what it is — and most of the general public does not understand how things really work.  They watch TV shows like Law & Order or NCIS and think the government folk are the good guys. Things are much more murky in the real world.

We’ve got lots of examples of this here on the blog (prosecutorial misconduct; excessive force by the police; use of flawed evidence to get convictions; etc.) but today, let’s focus on what happens to someone who has been charged with a crime under the Texas Penal Code and is now facing probation.

Specifically, let’s focus on money. Money that goes by the label “probation fees.”

Because that defendant has got to pay fees now, usually on a monthly basis, when he or she gets probation here in Texas.

Did you know this? Lots of people don’t — that there are these “probation fees” that must be paid by folk on probation in Texas. And that they’re not cheap.

 

Monthly Probation Fees

 

Deferred Adjudication vs. Probation

There’s more than one way to avoid being put in a cell after you’ve been arrested. You can win your case and demonstrate your innocence, sure.

In Texas, it is also possible for someone who has been arrested on either a misdemeanor or a felony charge to negotiate his way around having to spend time in a Texas state jail or Texas prison by taking an alternative route.  This is done by having the judge agree to place the defendant in “community supervision” (as defined in Texas Penal Code Article 42).

For details here, see our earlier article, “Fighting the Prosecutor on Just Punishment: Evidence on Sentencing and Probation After a Conviction in Texas.

There are two kinds of “community supervision” under state law: first, deferred adjudication; and second, probation. Under both options, the defendant avoids time behind bars – but he or she has to agree to be monitored by the state officials. (Check out details of the Dallas County Adult Probation Department here.)

They can expect to be drug tested, for example, and maybe do community service for a defined number of hours. Importantly, they have to stay out of trouble with law enforcement. Another arrest and either kind of “community supervision” agreement is endangered, leaving them to spending the time behind bars that they sought to avoid.

Deferred Adjudication.

Deferred adjudication is great for the defendant, because if she is successful, then there’s no conviction on her record. Moreover, the entire event can be sealed or subject to “non-disclosure,” allowing the defendant a future without the stigma of being arrested, much less convicted, in the public record.

Probation.

Probation is different. It allows the defendant to avoid incarceration, but there’s usually a conviction on their record. They may or may not be able to get that record expunged. For more on expungment, read our resources including “Second Chances: How To Get Rid Of Your Texas Criminal Record.

And probation can last a long time: the defendant may be living under the shadow of probation for five or ten years, for example. If that defendant makes a mistake then the probation can be revoked and he can end serving a good chunk of his life — think, years — in a Texas prison facility.

Fees Must Be Paid In Probation

It may be a big surprise to those who watch the crime shows on television to learn that a defendant who has negotiated to bypass incarceration with a probation deal has to pay money to the state as a part of the process. Defendants on probation are required to pay money to their probation officers on a regular, routine basis. If they don’t do it, then it’s considered a violation of their deal and off to prison they go.

The probation officers don’t have to collect the cash necessarily. For example, Dallas County and Denton County both have web sites that allows people on probation to pay their fees online, using a credit card.

What’s this money for?

Probation fees can cover all sorts of things. There’s a fee to cover the cost of being supervised by the probation department. There may be a charge to cover the cost of any CrimeStoppers’ expenses in the case. The charge incurred in a Pre-Sentencing Investigation Report used by the judge in deciding on probation may be included, as well.

Problem With Probation Fees: Defendants Cannot Pay Them

Here’s the thing with these fees: many defendants simply cannot afford to pay them. These fees can be a monthly payment that is as much or more as a car payment, monthly rent on an apartment, or food for the family. All too often, people on probation end up behind bars not because they’ve committed crimes or become a danger to themselves or others, but because they could not gather the cash to send in that monthly probation fee.

In a recent article by Dave Lieber in the Dallas Morning News,Watchdog: Pay-or-go-to-jail policy makes probation officers bill collectors,” this probation fee crisis was exposed using a teenager arrested on minor marijuana charge who must pay $400/month to his adult probation officer to cover over $1800 in fines, fees, and court courts.

The boy makes $8/hour. You do the math.

Excessive Probation Fees Is a Longstanding National Injustice

This isn’t a new problem. The Texas Tribune was pointing out the problem using DWI Misdemeanor charges back in 2010. It’s also not a problem unique to Texas; there are similar strategies in place in the criminal justice systems of many states as well as the federal government.

As Lieber’s expose points out, Texas counties are getting lots of revenue from these probation fees and it’s not going to be easy to change the system. Just like we’ve been arguing about in the forfeiture fiasco, government coffers are very dependent upon this side hustle revenue source here instead of tax revenue.

Defendant’s Difficult Choice

Which means that each individual defendant needs to consider carefully whether or not to commit to paying these fees or to opt for spending time behind bars. (Some defendants just throw their hands up and take the jail time because it’s cheaper.)

Having a zealous criminal defense lawyer here can help: it’s part of any criminal defense to investigate what these potential fees are going to be in any probation sentence and to argue the numbers as part of the deal.

For more on this issue, check out our web resources as well as Michael Lowe’s Case Results, including:

 


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