Issue Paper

Supervision Fees
Enacted: Jan 2001

This report on "Supervision Fees" raises questions about the current policies and procedures associated with the collection of supervision fees. Following is the report submitted by the APPA Issues and Development Committee.

Do probation and parole fees enhance or decrease the effectiveness of community correction? Is there an inherent role conflict in collecting fees from offenders: What do we know about fee collections?

Even if one chooses to ignore these questions, several things are certain:

  • The number of probation and parole agencies collecting one or more types of correctional fees has increased dramatically.
  • There has been an explosion in the sheer number and total dollar amount of fees the typical offender is required to pay.
  • Policy makers outside the criminal justice system are generally responsible for the fee explosion.
Keeping up with the Joneses

Correctional fees are not innovative. Michigan authorized the collection of fees from persons in jail in the 1850s and for probationers in 1929. Until 1980, however, only ten states had passed enabling legislation authorizing the collection of probation or parole supervision fees.1 By 1990, at least 28 states were collecting probation supervision fees, a 180% increase. And in 1991, 21 states were collecting parole supervision fees.2 A few states, on the other hand, "stopped their collection programs because they did not generate enough money to make them worthwhile.3 If some is good, is more better?

Not only are more agencies collecting fees, most of these agencies are collecting multiple fees from each offender. One author identified more than 26 kinds of fees!1 Thus, the total bill for any given offender can be substantial. Policymakers who add new fees do so in a black box; each additional fee is viewed as totally unconnected to existing fees. As a result, probation and parole agencies, as well as offenders, are constantly juggling how to collect and how to pay.

Correctional fees can be big business, but is it the business we're supposed to be in

A growing body of literature and research examined and debated the merit of and problems associated with the collection of supervision fees. Conceptually, the issues in the debate may be divided into those involving the philosophy and mission of community corrections, the administration of fee collections, and speculation that fee collection increases or decreases case failure rates.

Describing fees: What is our concept?

Supervision fees are frequently called user fees. This comparison to other public sector user charges raises the question about the appropriateness of fees for "involuntary" users who may or may not have received a particular service. One report distinguished between "program fees" which are largely applied to all parolees and probationers and "service fees" which are charged to relatively small numbers of offenders who receive special additional services, such as electronic monitoring.4 Service fees imply that a specific service was delivered, while program fees are similar to a "general admission" in that they imply access to common basic services (home visits, for example), or a range of potential services which may or may not be employed. The distinction is important conceptually because it contributes clarity to the language of fees. Our confused concepts appear to be a reflection of the poor fit between purpose, policy, methods and objectives of fees.

What APPA believes

Pro: Fees are beer and cigarette money. Money collection (e.g. restitution), say fee proponents, has always been an integral part of probation.5 Supervision fees can generate significant additional revenues. This can range from less than 5 percent to more than half of an organization's total operating budget.6 In some states, fee revenues can be used to supplement beleaguered community corrections budgets. In some instances, the fee generated revenues have resulted in "caseload size reductions and a reduced burden on county taxpayers in funding probation services."7 Offenders (and the public) benefit directly where reduced caseloads or additional services are the result of increased revenues from fees. Even when monies generated from fees are deposited into the general fund, as is the case in some states, the public's tax burden is lessened.

Proponents of fees note that offenders may benefit directly and indirectly from fees. Where agencies collect fees, officers have to devote more time to analyzing and managing an offender's life since employment counseling/referral and budgeting become even more critical. Paying fees may also promote a greater sense of responsibility in offenders. Some proponents stretch this logic to claim that fees are a form of punishment which may actually serve as a form of deterrent. A stronger case can be made for the claim that fees are a form of symbolic restitution to the taxpayers.

The collection of fees does not adversely affect field officers. Officer workload studies completed by NCCD suggest that the collection of fees in itself does not substantially increase officer workload. Surveys indicate that officers generally do not feel that fees decrease their professionalism.8 This is particularly true where top management has clearly and realistically defined the purpose and methods of fee collections. An example is an agency that encourages officers to seek fee waivers for offenders who enroll in education programs.

Although case law on the subject is limited, the courts have consistently upheld the legality of correctional fees. Proponents note that supervision is not contingent upon ability to pay supervision fees and all agencies provide mechanisms for waiving or deferring fees for the indigent. Although organizations often have a history of "talking tough, acting forgiving" when it comes to fee collections, proponents claim that no one is ever revoked for simply failing to pay their supervision fees.9 Responsible or irresponsible behavior with respect to fees is mirrored in many other aspects of an offender's life, so that even in the event of revocation, failure to pay program fees is usually only one of several more serious violations. Timely credible sanctions, however, for non-payment of fees by the able, but unwilling, are critical.

Con: Fees are "milk and bread money." Opponents of supervision fees state that supervision fees induce offenders with limited resources and skills to commit new crimes.10 Fees, in effect, put a price on probation which some offenders may not be able to pay. Even those who do not commit new crimes may abscond as a result of their real or perceived inability to pay. Revocations for new crimes or for failure to report may simply mask fee overload.

Fees present a number of organizational and administrative problems. Supervision fees are frequently ranked low by judges in terms of priorities.11 As a result, officers may be saddled with the responsibility of collecting fees without adequate enforcement sanctions which results in decreased credibility.

Agencies may find that revenues generated from fees will be used by funding sources to supplant rather than supplement traditional sources of revenue. Dependence on fees increases fiscal uncertainty for probation and parole agencies by making them dependent on an unstable source of funds.12 As a result, financial dependence on fees provides net widening incentives. Fee dependent organizations, for example, may have little incentive to grant early terminations to otherwise qualified probationers since the revenue base is tied to the number of offenders paying fees.

Finally, the quality and direction of community supervision may be adversely affected, particularly in fee dependent organizations. Direct responsibility for fee collections compromises the primary role of probation and parole officers. Taken to the extreme, collections become the measure of officer success. In a fee-addicted organization, collections can easily become the measure of officer and offender performance.

What APPA knows

How much will be collected? It is possible to predict, with remarkable accuracy, the total revenues an agency can expect to collect.13 Generally, internal factors such as an agency's fee collection policies have a greater impact on how much or how little is collected than do external factors such as local economic conditions. Factors which are statistically associated with increased or decreased fee collections include:

"High fees per offender result in lower collections per offender (except for investigation fees): the optimal fee level appears to be between $15-17 per month.2

The unemployment rate and the percentage of families living below the poverty level have a measurable impact on revenues.

There is no relation between caseload (workload) size and collections.

Of all factors affecting collections, the degree of access to fee payments is the most significant. Organizations which are able to keep part or all of the supervision fees collected, collect more.

Fee collection methods, sending out regular payment notices, keeping the supervising officer at least peripherally involved in the collections process (where payments are mailed in or collected by someone other than the officer, for example), increases collection rates.

The ability to impose strong sanctions (e.g. jail, work release) is moderately associated with increased collections.

The higher priority given to fee collections (over other types of collections), the more money is collected.14

The larger the proportion of offenders (e.g., felony and misdemeanor cases) who are required to pay fees, the more revenue is collected.

Truly indigent offenders should be screened as soon as possible whether by temporary waivers or some other mechanism to reduce unnecessary costs such as officer and court time.

Non-professional staff should be responsible for the administrative portion of collections.

Regular, accurate computerized reports monitoring fee payments result in increased revenues and better planning.

Fee revenues must exceed the cost of collection. While the actual costs associated with the collection of fees, from talking to the offender to additional court costs to process fee-related violations, is unknown. The consensus is that collection costs are less than 18 percent of revenues collected."15

What APPA needs to know

Fee collections can, in most instances, generate substantial amounts of revenue. Most long-range economic forecasts point to a continued increased competition for declining public revenues. In this economic environment, it is reasonable to conclude that the trend towards charging supervision fees will continue.

There is little substantive data to support either the pro or the con side of fee collection with regard to either the mission of community corrections or the impact on case outcomes. While the fundamental questions about the efficacy of fee collection remain unanswered, quite a bit is known about how to increase the efficiency of the collection process. The irony is, however, that we know more about how to collect fees than why or if we should collect fees.

Probation and parole organizations usually do not have the option to collect or not collect fees. However, many policy choices are under our control. Responsible policy analysis should focus on maximizing revenue collection while minimizing potential problems for the organization, officers, support staff, and offenders.

  • Policy analysis should precede policy development and implementation. Supervision fees, or any other form of correctional fees, cannot be evaluated in isolation. For example, if, as the data regarding supervision fees suggests, there is an inverse relationship between the total amount charged and the percentage collected per offender, then multiple fee charges may have unintended consequences.
  • Research should be conducted to determine what, if any, impact fee collections have on actual probation and parole supervision.
  • A clearly defined system of sanctions for failure to pay fees should be developed.
  • Probation and parole agencies need to define their business and clarify their missions. How we answer those fundamental questions should drive our fee policies.
  • Fee payment policies should clearly define the priority of collections disbursements.

In an era of cutbacks, mergers and downsizing, correctional fees are increasingly and rapidly becoming a fact of life for community corrections organizations. The fact that humans must eat to live, to use a physiological metaphor, is also a fact of life. The type, amount, and combination of food, however, can strengthen or weaken an organism. The same can also be said of judicious vs. irresponsible use of fees. When, why and from whom should we collect fees? How much is to much? How is fee collection related to our overall mission?

The rapid growth in number of organizations collecting fees, as well as the number of fees being collected, has exceeded our ability to meaningfully link policy, practice, and mission. Community corrections must not lose sight of the fact that fee collections are simply a means to help us achieve our mission, and not the mission itself.

  1. "Probation Supervision Fees, Shifting Costs to the Offender." Ring, Charles R. Mass. Legislative Research Bureau, Boston, Mass. 1988.
  2. "Recovering Correctional Costs Through Offender Fees." Parent, Dale. National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C. 1990.
  3. ACA On Line, January 1992, Vol. 15, p. 5.
  4. "Recovering Correctional Costs Through Offender Fees." Parent, Dale. National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C. 1990.
  5. "Fees for Supervision, Debating the Issues for Probation and Parole." Duffie, Hank and Hughes, Gail. Perspectives, Winter 1989.
  6. "Recovering Correctional Costs Through Offender Fees." Parent, Dale. National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C. 1990.
  7. "Probation Service Fees: The Arizona Experience." Wilcox, David Kenneth, Arizona State University. 1985. p. 33.
  8. "Fees for Probation Services." Baird, S. Christopher, et al. National Institute of Corrections, Washington, D.C. 1986.
  9. "Probation Supervision Fees, Shifting Costs to the Offender." Ring, Charles R., Mass. Legislative Research Bureau, Boston, Mass. 1988. p. 20.
  10. "Probation Supervision Fees, Shifting Costs to the Offender." Ring, Charles R., Mass. Legislative Research Bureau, Boston, Mass. 1988. p. 11.
  11. "Feasibility Study for Implementation of Probation Supervisory Fees." Green, Richard. Wyoming Department of Probation and Parole. 1989.
  12. "Fees for Supervision, Debating the Issues for Probation and Parole." Duffie, Hank and Hughes, Gail. Perspectives, Winter 1989.
  13. "Projecting Probation Fee Revenues." NCCD.
  14. "Projecting Probation Fee Revenues." Baird, S. Christopher, et al. Madison, Wisconsin. 1986.
  15. "Recovering Correctional Costs Through Offender Fees." Parent, Dale. National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C. 1990. p. 17.