By CALEB SLINKARD
Discussions got a little heated during a budget hearing for the Hunt County Community Supervision and Corrections Department when County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Andrew Bench pressed 196th District Court Judge Steve Tittle for his reasons behind waiving, and then reinstating, supervision fees on two probationers earlier this year.
“As I’ve said a few times I can’t talk about specific cases,” Tittle responded.
“I’m not talking about specifics,” Bench said. “I’m talking about ‘in general.’”
“I’m not going to talk about specific cases,” Tittle said. “It’s improper, and it’s improper for you to do, too.”
The meeting was held on Aug. 13 at noon in 354th District Judge Richard Beacom’s courtroom. Beacom and County Court at Law #2 Judge Duncan Thomas were also in attendance. The budget presented by Hunt County CSCD Director Jim McKenzie and CSCD financial officer Mike Taylor was passed by the judges 4-0.
During probation review hearings held by Tittle on March 8, March 20 and April 12 of this year, the judge waived more than a hundred supervision fees, which are $60 fees that probationers are required to pay that helps fund their supervision.
According to Article 42.12, Section 19 (a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, a judge may waive a supervision fee only if “the judge determines that payment of the fee would cause the defendant a significant financial hardship.” The county also does not collect supervision fees on individuals who have violated their probation and have been sent back to jail, or probationers whom they do not directly supervise.
Court records and research conducted by CSCD indicate that more than 70 probationers had their fees waived for reasons other than those outlined by the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
On June 3, CSCD attorney Joe Weis filed motions to vacate the waiver of supervision fees for two of these cases. On June 4, Tittle amended the two individual’s probations and reinstated the probation fees without holding a hearing, the same two cases he declined to talk about during the budget hearing.
“I guess since he already gave his reasons for waiving the fees during the supervision fee hearings, he doesn’t need to explain himself now,” Weis said following the meeting.
CSCD then sent a letter to Tittle asking that Tittle reinstate the 70-plus other cases waived under similar circumstances. To this date, no other supervision fees have been reinstated.
“This puts the department in the position of either doing nothing, or incurring additional attorney’s fees by filing 70-plus motions,” Weis said.
McKenzie estimated that the waived fees will cost the department hundreds of thousands of dollars, although it is improbable that the department would have collected all of the fees due to probation violations and other factors.
The bulk of the discussion on Aug. 13 centered around a phone call McKenzie received from the Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD) stating they would no longer be funding the Hunt County CSCD’s in-house substance abuse program, the Intensive Intervention Diversion Program (IDP).
The division is cutting its funding due to the program’s inability to meet state standards for successful completions and number of individuals enrolled.
McKenzie was notified by phone earlier this year by CJAD that the program was not meeting the state’s benchmark of a 52 percent completion rate, a benchmark McKenzie said he was unaware of until the phone call.
The judges approved an expenditure of approximately $16,000 to fund the current program until the probationers completed it in the spring of next year. According to McKenzie, the probation department will be able to reapply for CJAD funding for a similar program in March of 2014, which would mean that the earliest another program could be in place would be Sept. 1 of 2015.
“Without this program, we’re in the ridiculous situation where you could smoke marijuana one time and get sent to (Substance Abuse Felony Punishment),” Bench said.
McKenzie confirmed that there is no other in-house substance abuse program, although CJAD has asked McKenzie to come up with substance abuse program costs that the division could help the probation department fund.