BURLEY • Staying out of jail on probation is expensive, with costs hitting hard for those who are less affluent.
In Idaho, people who can readily pay misdemeanor fines and court costs often get waived through the system if they don’t have prior criminal history or drug and alcohol issues.
But if their wallet doesn’t allow immediate payment, they are sometimes put on probation, though some judges grant extended time to get fees paid.
The cost difference can run nearly $1,000 a year.
The judicial system might favor an affluent offender, who can more easily pay fines and fees and might not have to go to court or on probation, agreed Rick Bollar, Minidoka County magistrate judge.
“There has always been a concern in the judicial system about how much justice can be bought,” Bollar said. “But if creating structure for an individual through probation by means of compliance in maintaining insurance and employment creates disparity, hopefully probation also does some good for that person.”
If the crime was violent, such as domestic violence, or the person has drug or alcohol issues, he goes on supervised probation. In those cases, a judge also can order random drug and alcohol testing twice monthly, which can be adjusted by the probation officer. A person is placed on unsupervised probation if the court simply wants to ensure they stay trouble-free for a set time.
Blaine Cannon, Cassia County’s magistrate judge, disagreed that the system favors the affluent. Other options to probation, he said, are jail time and fines. And while a $1,000 fine will be more of a sacrifice or challenge to someone with less money, everyone must be held accountable for a crime they commit.
“In the old days, if you couldn’t pay the fine, you just went to jail,” Cannon said.
A person sentenced to supervised probation in Mini-Cassia has to pay $60 a month, plus the costs for any drug tests.
“I don’t like having to drug test,” said Francisco Tarin, 22, of Rupert. “I think it’s pretty ridiculous to be put on supervised probation for such a small charge.”
Tarin violated his probation on misdemeanor charges of failure to present identification to officers for liquor and obstruction. He was placed on supervised probation for a year in March for resisting to identify himself to police when they responded to a family dispute.
Tarin said probation costs him about $80 a month, plus the cost of gas to drive to Burley each time he checks in at the probation office.
“It is a hardship. That $80 could go towards a fridge,” he said.
Tarin said he changed his work shift from days to swing shift to accommodate the probation requirements.
The probation office’s random testing uses a color-coded system, and probationers are required to call the office each morning between 5 and 7 a.m. to see if they have to drug test that day.
“After 7 a.m., they take the recording off, so I have to drive to Burley to see if it’s my day to test,” Tarin said.
He said he’s grateful he has a good job, and he feels bad for families struggling on minimum wage who must pay the extra fees.
“I’ll be staying out of trouble after this,” Tarin said.
Breaking the Rules Can be Costly
Probation is a set of terms used in lieu of incarceration, an agreement between the court and the defendant. A judge orders the terms.
Bollar said defendants who don’t have a great deal to lose occasionally opt out of probation.
“Under certain circumstances, the realities of life may be that they don’t have a car, a driver’s license or a job, and incarceration seems like a good alternative to them,” he said.
The costs of the supervision and drug fees are set by the Minidoka County and Cassia County joint-powers board, said George Warrell, Cassia County undersheriff.
The Fifth Judicial District allows counties to charge up to $75 per month for supervised probation. In Mini-Cassia, it runs $60 a month.
Linda Wright, trial court administrator for the 5th Judicial District, said drug tests in the district cost $10 to $11. In Mini-Cassia, they range from $12 to $15.
The Mini-Cassia office has 550 people on misdemeanor probation, and 1,000 drug tests are performed at the office each month, including tests for felony probation, Drug Court and Health and Welfare, Warrell said.
When a urinalysis shows a positive result, the sample is sent to another lab for confirmation testing, said Amber Prewitt, director at the Mini-Cassia Misdemeanor Probation Office.
A judge determines if the person will be drug tested, but a person’s behavior determines how often they’ll be tested, Bollar said.
Multiple tests mean shelling out a lot more money, and drug tests have to be paid when taken.
If someone doesn’t have the money, the office will allow them to wait until payday but then asks them to pay for one test in advance to prevent recurrence, Prewitt said.
Multiple Factors Play into Sentencing
Cannon said the type of crime determines what level of probation a judge will order, but other factors are considered.
“We also look at their criminal history, the circumstances of the crime and if drug or alcohol abuse may have been a factor leading to the crime,” Cannon said. “You’d be surprised how many misdemeanor crimes are committed by someone with a meth problem.”
The judge said a person sometimes will bring up a drug problem in court because they want help. Other times, the defense attorney mentions it or the prosecutor may have dealt with the person in the past and knows their history of substance abuse.
Someone with a criminal history or drug or alcohol issues won’t likely be put on unsupervised probation even if they can pay their fines and fees immediately, Cannon said.
“Someone who has no driver’s license, because they simply forgot to renew it, is going to be dealt with differently than someone who has a history of driving without a license,” he said.
Bollar said probation is used to ensure court compliance but also helps set up structure in the person’s life.
“They are required to get a job and meet certain requirements,” said Bollar.
Getting Creative in the Courtroom
Probationers have to fulfill their obligations, including paying fines and fees before they go on unsupervised probation, Prewitt said.
She sees many given several weeks by the courts to pay their fines before they have to sign up for probation, meaning the courts are granting them time to pay.
Cannon sometimes gives people 45 days to pay court costs before they have to sign up for probation, and if it is paid on time, they sometimes get no probation at all. “We try to get creative,” he said.
Bollar and Cannon also use structure review hearings, in which an offender can return to court to report on their status rather than going on probation.
“I have the luxury of doing that because I have a calendar that allows it,” Bollar said.
Smaller jurisdictions can accommodate more court hearings, he said.
Bollar said if an offender pays outstanding costs, they may not even have to attend the structure review hearing.
Prewitt said the probation office works with people who are “truly” indigent to get them back to court so the judge can waive fees.
Cannon said he’ll waive fees and costs for someone who has a disability and cannot work or to make sure a victim receives restitution.
“I’d rather see the victim receive that restitution,” he said.
Bollar also allows offenders who can’t pay costs to perform community service, which is applied to their outstanding costs at a rate of $10 per hour, minus a deduction for worker’s compensation insurance. The community service cannot be applied toward restitution costs or drug testing fees, however.
“Judges have a lot of discretion in what they do in their courtroom,” Bollar said.