Probation Fines Contribute to "Debtor's Prison" Problem


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.

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