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«Crime Does Not Pay, But Criminals May: Factors Influencing the Imposition and Collection of Probation Fees* David E. Olson and Gerard F. Ramker In ...»

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Crime Does Not Pay, But Criminals

May: Factors Influencing the

Imposition and Collection of

Probation Fees*

David E. Olson and Gerard F. Ramker

In this study, factors influencing the imposition and collection of probation fees in a sample of more than 2,400 Illinois adult probationers were examined. Predictor variables

were grouped into two major categories (probationer and sentence characteristics), and

four different measures related to probation fees were studied: 1) whether or not probation fees were imposed, 2) when imposed, the total amount of probation fees ordered,

3) the monthly rate of probation fees, and 4) the percentage of fees paid/collected.

Multivariate analyses revealed that some factors were consistent predictors of all measures of probation fees (imposition, amount, and collection rates), while other factors were only predictive of some of these measures. Probationer characteristics, including race, income, and prior convictions, were predictive of whether fees were imposed and the collection rate, while environmental conditions, such as whether the probationer was sentenced in a rural jurisdiction or whether other financial conditions of probation were imposed, such as criminal fines, were predictive of all three measures of probation fees.

The pressure for government agencies to increase their effectiveness and efficiency, while at the same time reducing the burden on taxpayers, has resulted in a number of significant changes in the ways in which public agencies are financed. One mechanism through which public organizations have increased their resources has been the assessment of user fees, which place more of the burden for supporting the cost of government services on those who disproportionately use them. Although this practice has been adopted for many types of government services, such as waste removal, the provision of water, electricity, and other utilities, and maintenance of roads, the widespread application of user fees, as opposed to fines, by the criminal justice system is relatively new.

Corrections is one component of the criminal justice system that has applied the practice of making “users” pay for services, particularly for community-based supervision programs. Indeed, many criminal justice practitioners and policymakers view fees * An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association, October 7, 1999, in Chicago. The authors greatly acknowledge the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, which supported the data collection for this study through Grant #97-DB-MU-0017, awarded to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. We would also like to express our appreciation to the staff at the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts’ Probation Services Division for initiating the study and the probation officers throughout Illinois for their efforts and commitment to the data collection phase of this project.

–  –  –

paid by offenders as filling the gap of diminishing tax revenues (Williams, 1987). Over the past two decades, the number of states authorizing the imposition of probation/supervision fees has increased dramatically. During the 1980s alone, for example, the number of states authorizing probation fees more than doubled (Ring, 1989). By 1991, thirty-two states allowed for the collection of probation fees, ranging from $5 to $100 per month (Davis, 1991). A recent United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics study revealed that over 98 percent of all probation sentences handed down in 1995 included some special conditions and that, most frequently, these included the payment of supervision fees, fines, or court costs, with supervision fees being the most commonly ordered special condition (Bonczar, 1997). However, unlike fines, which are principally designed for deterrence and retribution (Hillsman, 1990:51), probation fees are intended to have the offender partially support the costs associated with his or her supervision. In addition, whereas fines are usually set at specific amounts based on the offense, probation fees are usually based on a variable monthly rate, resulting in the total amount varying based on sentence length. Finally, while fines are one of the oldest forms of punishment (Hillsman et al., 1987), probation fees are relatively new.

Although the widespread use of probation fees only began in the mid- to late 1980s, it has been subjected to a considerable amount of research, evaluation, and debate. For example, a number of studies have examined the prevalence of probation fees as a condition of probation across different jurisdictions (e.g., Ellsworth and Weisheit, 1997;

Finn and Parent, 1993; Weiss, 1991; Williams, 1987), examined the impact probation fees have had on the financing of probation and factors associated with jurisdiction-level probation fee collection rates (Baird, Holien, and Bakke, 1987; Williams, 1987), and evaluated programs designed to increase these collection rates (e.g., Morgan, 1995;

Wheeler and Rudolph, 1990). There has also been a considerable amount of attention paid to the efficacy of collecting these fees from probationers (e.g., Wheeler et al., 1990), as well as philosophical arguments debating the benefits and problems associated with the practice.





Interestingly, research examining the magnitude of support probation fees can provide to probation departments has reached differing conclusions. For example, probation departments in some jurisdictions report becoming financially self-sufficient through the collection of supervision fees (Weiss, 1991), while others indicate the practice covers only a portion of operating costs (Williams, 1987). Still, substantial revenues can be generated through supervision fees. In 1990 local probation departments in the state of Texas, for example, collected over $57 million in probation fees, which supported 40 percent of probation budgets in the state (Finn and Parent, 1993). The state encouraged this lucrative practice by allowing probation departments to roll over a portion of the supervision fees collected into their next fiscal year budget.

There has also been a considerable amount of attention paid in the literature to methods used to increase the collection, and collection rates, of court-imposed probation fees and other financial requirements. For example, Baird, Holien, and Bakke (1987) identified a number of factors associated with probation fee collection rates across ninety different jurisdictions, including fee amount, unemployment and poverty of probationers, regular collection of fees, and agency access and use of the fee revenues.

OLSON and RAMKER Similarly, Williams (1987) concluded that jurisdictions that restrict the use of installment plans, require payment within relatively short periods of time (between two and four weeks), and strictly enforce penalties for nonpayment have higher fee and fine collection rates. Others have emphasized the role of the judiciary and court administrators in the enforcement of payment orders (Hillsman, 1988). There have also been a number of assessments focusing on the probation officer’s role as a revenue-collecting agent and the use of management reports focusing attention on fee collection. In Alabama, for example, many probation officers felt this activity took too much time away from their other duties, although they recognized the benefits and importance of fee collection for their agency and the positive effects it may have on the offender (Morgan, 1995). An evaluation of a procedure whereby probation officers were provided with performance feedback on probation fee collection rates found that this procedure increased fee collection rates (Wheeler and Rudolph, 1990).

However, despite the popularity of probation fees, there are many critics of the activity. The growing use of supervision fees has sparked debate on whether the practice will produce a conflict for probation officers who must decide whether to emphasize counseling, supervision, or the enforcement of economic sanctions in their work. The practice has also raised fears that such fees will compete with, and perhaps displace, restitution payments, victim-witness fees, or other court-ordered payments (Wheeler et al., 1990). Finally, as with most financial conditions of probation, there is the concern that the fee amounts will disproportionately impact lower-income probationers. This potential has frequently been identified in the literature regarding the imposition of criminal fines, which has suggested that fines may have a minimal impact on the wealthy and be impossible to collect from the poor (Hillsman, 1990:54). Further increasing this potential is the fact that the amount of many fines are fixed or set by law, resulting in these financial conditions disproportionately impacting the poor.

Despite all of these assessments of probation fees, which have tended to examine cross-jurisdictional differences in fee imposition and collection rates, relatively little empirical research has addressed the factors that influence the imposition and collection of probation fees across individual probationers. For example, one recent study found that nonmetropolitan probationers were more often required to pay probation fees than metropolitan probationers in Illinois (Ellsworth and Weisheit, 1997), but did not take into account any other probationer differences such as age, race, gender, and income.

The literature dealing with the identification of factors that influence the imposition of such fees on individual probationers is virtually nonexistent. Similarly, while many of the previously cited examples have identified factors associated with the collection of probation fees across jurisdictions, or have evaluated procedural steps that can enhance collection rates, little is known about what makes individual probationers more or less likely to have this ordered as a condition of their sentence.

While many have assumed that the imposition of probation fees is closely tied to the income of the probationer, the roles other defendant characteristics, such as age, gender, race, or education, play in fee imposition have not been examined sufficiently. Similarly, the extent to which conviction offense or other conditions of a probation sentence, such as treatment orders or the imposition of other financial requirements, influence the impoTHE JUSTICE SYSTEM JOURNAL sition of probation fees on probationers is almost nonexistent. In a 1988 survey of judges, Cole (1988) found that probation fees were most likely to be used in combination with other financial conditions of probation, such as fines. However, this was based on the judges’ indication of the extent to which they used these fees as conditions of sentences and not the actual use of fees across individual offenders.

The literature on the imposition of criminal fines can provide some insight regarding factors associated with the imposition of financial conditions. For example, a number of studies have found that offenses such as driving under the influence are often dealt with by fines (Hillsman, Sichel, and Mahoney, 1984:41), and misdemeanor offenses more often are disposed of through the imposition of fines than are felonies (Hillsman, 1990:56). Finally, the degree to which there are different factors associated with the imposition of probation fees (a dichotomous variable measuring whether or not any fee was imposed) versus the amount of the fee imposed versus the collection rate has also not been adequately addressed in prior research. From the perspective of policy and practice, this type of comparison would be beneficial for understanding if the factors positively associated with the imposition of fees were positively or negatively associated with the actual collection of probation fees.



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