When people ask about “mass incarceration” or “criminal justice reform,” it is difficult to explain in one simple sentence, just as it is difficult to wrap up any multi-billion dollar industry that impacts millions of people into one little package with a bow on it. One bill in the Louisiana legislature, however, comes extremely close to simplifying the complex disaster that is the American criminal justice system.
HB302 was heard this week in House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice. The hearing was attended overwhelmingly by about fifty Department of Corrections employees, wearing black shirts, and gun holsters on their waists. Their job is to monitor people under community supervision. They came out in force with a purpose: to demand a bigger paycheck. Watch the full hearing here, beginning at 136:00.
HB302 is not an appropriations bill, nor was it (as Rep. Ted James passionately pointed out) a bill to give raises to state employees. This is a bill to take money from the pockets of people they supervise, and put it directly in theirs. This strange relationship deserves some close scrutiny.
Currently, people under community supervision, i.e. probation or parole, pay $63 each month, or as much of that as they can. The bill proposes to raise that to $100, with the difference going directly to the probation officers. Legislators in committee all remarked at what a tremendous job they are all doing, and what a shame it is they are so underpaid. Nobody spoke about metrics of their job performance though.
How does one measure the performance of a probation officer?
Imagine the scene if the bill passes:
Probation Officer (with gun on hip): Okay Joe, still at the same job?<a href='/uploads/6/4/9/8/64988423/published/probation-fee-service-screen-shot.jpeg' rel='lightbox' onclick='if (!lightboxLoaded) return false'>
Joe (in grease-stained work clothes): Yeah, but I’m still looking for another one, this $7.50 an hour isn’t really getting me anywhere.
Probation Officer: Good thinking. Still living at the same apartment?
Joe: Yeah, but my roommate moved out, and if I don’t find somebody else quick, I’m gonna have to move in with my sister for a little bit.
Probation Officer: Well if you do move, I’m gonna have to approve it first. And I need to run a BCI check on your roommate if you find one. You driving yet?
Joe: Nope. I gotta pay off these court costs first. They want three grand to let me get my license back, but I can’t get to a real job without a license. And I was hoping to maybe go to school and learn a career because I’m good with computers, but I just can’t see that happening with the tight squeeze I’m in right now.
Probation Officer: Right. And how are you doing with your probation fees?
Joe: Well I wasn’t working for the first two months, and then I had to get the apartment and all that, and I don’t really got more than about $20 a month because I’m giving the court $100 month trying to get that license, and these guys from y’all’s collection agency keep calling me bright n early on Saturdays after I been working till two in the morning, like ‘gimme the money, How much money do you have right now. You owe us $971. What can you pay right now;’ And I’m like ‘look man, I’m broke! I’m out here eating Ramen noodles and trying not to do the same shit that got me into this jam, and why are y’all chasing me down like I owe you personally?’
Probation Officer: Well Joe, I know how you feel. We all have bills to pay in the real world. And I’ve got some news for you. They just increased the probation fees to $100 a month.
Joe: What?! A hundred? What are they thinking?
Probation Officer: I know, but what is the alternative? Prison? Would you rather go to prison? Look Joe, you just have to work harder, like the rest of us out here. You should have thought about this before you got into a life of crime.
Joe: Man this just gets harder and harder. Y’all want us to do the right thing yet you just add on more and more bills while my record keeps me out of housing, school, jobs… it’s like you WANT us to fail. I mean, I gotta miss a half day of work just to come see you- and then find out I owe you more money?!
Probation Officer: It’s teaching you responsibility, Joe. You’ve never been responsible. That’s why it feels so hard. But you’re doing good. Keep it up.
What the P.O. neglected to point out is that they went to the legislature and demanded a salary increase off the back of Joe and 71,000 people like him.
The Current Fee Process
Usually, the transfer of money is not as blatant as HB302. When someone is put on probation or parole, their total balance due is calculated by Fieldware, LLC, a collections agency in Chicago. They look at the total number of months someone is scheduled to be on supervision, and calculate a lifetime balance. Someone facing 10 years of parole will be assessed $7560. If they can’t pay, the balance does not come down. There is no “ability to pay” assessment. There is no reduced fee for a certain month. The proposed amount would go up to $12,000.
But that is not all. If Joe pays every month, using the online system, he will also pay a $5.50 transaction fee that goes straight to the pockets of Fieldware, LLC. That would be an additional $660 in fees if the bill passed. These fees exceed the statutory maximum fee, and is blatantly in violation of the law.
The parole officers assure the Committee that nobody is violated for not paying, but Fieldware, LLC will call on nights and weekends, and send out mailings claiming how much they owe. Fieldware, LLC also can not give anyone a clear accounting of what was paid and what is owed. They simply provide a dollar number, and refer questions to your probation officer… who refers back to the collections agency.
One legislator confidently attributed the success stories to these men and women in black. In truth, of all the success stories I am familiar with, not a single one of them would credit their parole officer. I am not aware of any P.O. who got someone a job, or housing, or into college.
If the performance metric for probation and parole officers is “success stories,” perhaps their pay should be based on rates of employment, educational attainment, housing stability, and lack of arrests? If these armed monitors are truly invested in success, why were they not out in force to support voting rights for people under community supervision? Where are they on Ban the Box bills? For housing reform that ends blanket discrimination for people with records? For Banning the Box on college applications? Have they helped anyone get health insurance? Have they accompanied anyone to Family Court to deal with a hefty child support bill and try negotiating their wage garnishment?
If parole officers are to be credited for success, should they also take credit for the failures? Half the people entering prison enter as a violator of community supervision.
The legislators voted 8-7 to approve a raise on the backs of the low-income people they supervise. Coincidentally, the eight white legislators voted to this bill, and the seven Black legislators voted against it. These 71,000 people are facing additional debt stress, and now knowing that their P.O. mobilized the whole office to extract more money from the state’s most impoverished people.
The legislature’s fiscal note anticipates no government expenditures, and estimates $926,544 in “self-generated revenue.” They must anticipate that recidivism will not go up.
People under community supervision are a revenue generator.
Bodies create money for the people who oversee them.
The Prison-Industrial Complex.