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Texas Counties Give Up on Probationer Restitution Centers

by Matt Clarke

In the 1980s, faced with overcrowded prisons and probationers who often failed to pay their court-ordered fees and fines, some Texas counties came up with what sounded like a good idea: the Probationer Restitution Center (PRC). A PRC is essentially a group of dedicated jail beds used to incarcerate probationers on nights and weekends.

The idea was that a judge would order night-and-weekend incarceration until the probationer got caught up on their delinquent fines and fees. That way the courts could get their money without having to violate the probationer, which would keep them out of the state’s overcrowded prison system.

Collin County, Texas closed its PRC in November 2009. Although the program had a capacity of ten beds, soon be-fore it shut down it held only four probationers. Bob Hughes, director of Collin County’s probation department, said they had rarely used all available beds, which were located in the county jail.

This inefficiency partially explains the demise of the PRCs. There were once fourteen Probationer Restitution Centers in Texas. After the Collin County PRC closed, only seven remain. They are located in Cameron, Cass, El Paso, Hildago, San Patricio and Taylor Counties. Tarrant County opened a PRC in 1983 but closed it in 2001. Dallas County operated one from 1985 until 2004.

How do counties without a PRC deal with delinquent probationers? “We set up a whole collections department, and we work with our clients to put payment plans together,” stated Michael Noyes, director of Dallas County’s probation de-partment.

Neighboring Denton County never set up a PRC. “It takes a lot of money to run one of those,” said Mitch Liles, the county’s adult probation director. “I can remember when they started. They sprang up with good intentions. But when you factor in all the overhead costs ... it never added up to me.”

Indeed, Collin County expects collections from delinquent probationers to increase after their PRC closed. Why? Probationers in the PRC were required to pay $18 per day for housing and food costs. That money could otherwise be applied toward the fines and fees they owe. Furthermore, some probationers had a hard time getting a ride to work from the PRC where they were jailed at night.

“We’re going to try this and see if it’s more effective ... and saves a little bit of money for the county,” said state District Judge Chris Oldner.

The whole PRC concept is part of a mean-spirited philosophy that pervades Texas’ criminal justice system. The very idea of taking people too poor to pay their fees and fines and locking them up – and charging them for their incarceration – shows a lack of perspective. It also smacks of a return to the days of debtors’ prisons. Such coercive measures might work on rich or middle-class probationers who could pay up to avoid spending nights and weekends in a PRC; however, such people aren’t likely to risk going to jail by becoming delinquent in their payments to begin with.

The people who came up with this idea – prosecutors and judges – simply cannot imagine what it is like to be poor and unable (not unwilling) to pay fines and fees. Thus, PRCs have become an additional punishment laid on the already overburdened backs of impoverished probationers. The sooner the last PRC in Texas closes, the better.

Sources: Dallas Morning News, Collin County Probation Dept.

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