Taxpayers are picking up more of the tab as fewer people on probation are paying fees meant to help cover the costs of the program.
Fewer people have been paying either because they can’t afford to, choose not to or can’t when they are sent to jail or prison, chief probation officer Suzanne Miller said. The amount brought in from those fees dropped to $376,291 last year, a 39 percent decrease from 2010.
More than 1,500 people are on probation in Johnson County for crimes ranging from driving while suspended to theft and possession of controlled substances. They are charged several fees, including one-time fees of $100 to $200 and monthly fees of $20 to $30, based on whether they were convicted of a felony or misdemeanor crime.
Money collected from the fees is used to cover a portion of salaries for probation officers, who supervise people on probation to ensure they follow the terms of their sentence, such as getting a job.
The department had planned to spend more than $1.2 million on salaries for probation department employees, with 65 percent coming from the tax dollars and 35 percent from juvenile and adult probation fees. The decrease in the amount collected from fees in recent years, which dropped by about $235,000 from 2010 to 2012, has meant that taxpayers have had to cover more of the costs. For example, this year the probation department had to ask for $19,000 more from the county’s tax collections for payroll costs.
The county has little ability to collect the money from those who can’t or won’t pay, Miller said.
The amount collected from probation fees started to decrease three years ago at the time random drug tests were started for people on probation, Miller said. When people test positive for drugs, they are sent to jail, and the department no longer gets the monthly fees they would have paid for the rest of their sentence on probation, she said.
These people, along with others who end up in jail or prison during their sentence, already might have been behind on payments and owed the county money that will now not be paid because they have no income, she said.
If someone has gone months without paying their fees, the court will conduct a hearing to determine whether or not that person has the ability to pay. The judge will look at factors such as whether they have a job and ability to work, Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said.
If at the hearing the judge finds that a person can pay but has chosen not to, the judge can extend the probation sentence or revoke the probation and send the person to jail, Loyd said. When people face a longer sentence or time in jail, they become more likely to pay because they see the consequences of ignoring the fees, he said.
For those who don’t have the financial ability to pay, a judgment will be ordered against them, which means that the court is acknowledging it might take them a long period of time to pay their fees, he said. The judgment accrues interest of up to 18 percent annually and can affect their ability to get a loan or purchase a home, he said.
But the county has no way of ensuring that these fees are ever collected, he said.
The courts try to use all resources possible, such as the threat of jail time or judgments, to collect fees before a probationer’s sentence ends, Loyd said.
“Our primary tool is to collect those before they ever leave probation,” he said. “Then we have more clout and tools available.”
After people’s sentences end, if they still have not paid, the court can order them to come back for compliance hearings to check on their progress toward getting a job or saving up to pay their fees, Johnson County Superior Court 3 Judge Lance Hamner said. He said he’ll bring people in for hearings every one to three months until they pay.
The probation office also tries to collect fees through a collection agency if someone’s sentence ends and the person still has not paid, Miller said. The collection notices and judgments affect a person’s credit, but if a probationer isn’t looking to buy a house or get a loan, the notices likely won’t have an impact, so that person still won’t pay, she said.
Starting next year, the department will send probation officers out on home visits to check on people in their place of residence. The visits will give them a chance to see whether or not they have been honest about their living situation and what they can afford, Miller said.
The department also is getting employees trained to write grants, so that more money can be brought in to cover expenses, rather than tax dollars.
Here is a look at how much people on probation in Johnson County pay:
Fee amounts based on type of crime
$100 one-time administrative fee
$100 one-time initial fee
$30 monthly fee
$50 one-time administrative fee
$50 one-time initial fee
$20 monthly fee
Amount brought in from probation fees
2013 (to date): $316,480