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Texas Counties Set To Raid State Prisoners Trust Fund Accounts

Texas Counties Set To Raid State Prisoners Trust Fund Accounts

by Matthew T. Clarke

Partially in response to legislation making it mandatory by 2007 for Texas counties to establish programs to collect fines, costs, restitution and fees from Texas state prisoners and partially on their own, several Texas counties have began recovering money for fines, court costs, court-appointed attorney fees and restitution from state prisoners trust fund accounts.

In the past, frequent practice by district attorneys in Texas seeking lengthy felony sentences was for them to tell the jury to forget fining the defendant. This was primarily because it has always been assumed that indigent prisoners couldnt pay the fines anyway. Now, in a new wave of what some would call fiscal responsibility and others would label sheer meanness, Texas counties are moving to collect fines and other costs from Texas prisons families and friends by attaching part of the money the families and friends send to the prisoners trust fund accounts.

Except for a few privileged prisoners in a small experimental prison labor program involving private companies, Texas prisoners are not paid for their labor. Most frequently they come to prison indigent and remain that way until they leave. If they are lucky, a friend or family member will send the prisoner a little money every now and again that might cover the cost of buying hygienic supplies, snacks or even a fan. Seeing this pittance as a potential revenue source, some counties are eager to get a piece of the action.

Technically, the counties have had the legislative authority to tap into prisoners trust fund accounts to recover child support, fines, costs, restitution and fees since 1996. Few counties did. Thats why, when Karen Matkin was appointed District Clerk of McLennan County, she found that, despite having the authority to collect the money, the county had failed to develop a collection program. She quickly determined that about $800,000 in uncollected costs, fees and fines were generated in 2004 alone.

When Matkin realized the magnitude of the uncollected funds, she requested an additional staff position, at an annual salary of $26,000, to assist with the new programs paperwork load. She guaranteed the county commissioners court that the program would generate at least $49,000 in the first year or the new position could be eliminated. The first collection orders went out to 22 state jail felony cases in July 2005. The collection orders result in 20 percent of the preceding six months worth of deposits being attached. Deposits made thereafter are attached at the rate of 10 percent.

Every felony case generates at least $198 in court costs. If the county collects that amount, $1.33 must be sent to the state. Other outstanding costs typically include at least $500 in court-appointed attorney fees even if all that was done was the entry of a guilty plea.

Matkin says her goal is to collect 20% of the outstanding amount. She started with state jail felonies because their short term of incarceration made it imperative to attach their accounts quickly. However, prisoners with long sentences will also receive her attention.

"The longer somebody is in the penitentiary, the greater the likelihood that we will recover more of our funds," said Matkin. "If they are serving a life sentence, theoretically, somebody is going to be sending them money every month and we are going to be standing there with our hand out to collect our portion of those funds."

Criminal defense attorneys and former McLennan County prosecutors Ken Crow and Scott Peterson are not sold on the program. "This is just like all government programs," said Crow. "They all start out with good intentions and then they turn into crap. They will spend more to administer the program than they will ever collect from indigent defendants. Thats why everybodys taxes go up--because of stupid ideas like this." Peterson is not even sure about the honorable intentions.

"I think it is a terrible idea because all you are doing is hurting the inmates family because they are going to be the ones giving them the money," said Peterson. "Why would you want to do something like that?" George Allen, chief felony judge in McLennan County noted that the mandatory legislation could be viewed as another unfunded mandate. It requires the county to spend a lot of money setting up the program and collecting the outstanding amounts, then send the vast majority of the collected money to the state, even though the state paid nothing toward the collection program.

John Segrest, McLennan County District Attorney, questioned the concept of turning the collection of fees, fines and costs into a revenue stream for the state. He said that perhaps the whole idea should be rethought.

Kerr County District Clerk Linda Uecker said that the program in her county, which was established in 1997, has worked well. She noted that such good results might not carryover into a large-population county like McLennan County. Whatever the case, it is expected that by 2007 all Texas counties will have established collection programs.

Westmorland County, Pennsylvania, has also created a program to collect costs of incarceration from county prisoners. In 2002, the county prison board passed a policy to charge county prisoners $10 per day of incarceration. The county attaches up to 50% of the money in the prisoners trust fund to cover the fee. If they owe money upon release, prisoners are given a bill and instructions on how to set up a payment plan. Prisoners sentences cannot be extended for failing to pay, therefore, the county is considering hiring a collection agency to handle the outstanding debts which amounted to $2 million in September 2005.

The program generates $60,000 to $70,000 per year, most of which comes from work-release prisoners whose paychecks are partially garnished for the fee as a condition of being on work-release. The collected money goes into the countys general fund.

Sources: Waco Tribune-Herald, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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