Missouri offenders say potential fee increase a problem

Saturday, April 7, 2012 | 4:04 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Every month, 22-year-old Andrew Barbee is supposed to send the Missouri Department of Corrections money to help pay for his supervision as he serves probation until 2015.

The fee was originally $30 per month, but Barbee fell behind on the payments after he was put on probation in 2010 for a conviction of possessing stolen property. Barbee, of Columbia, has been back to jail once for falling behind and his payment amount has doubled to $60 per month until his account is current. He estimates he's still about $180 behind.

"I've really been a whole lot more responsible," Barbee said. "It still seems like there's no real way of getting ahead. It's almost like a repetitive cycle."

The corrections department is allowed to collect that fee under a 2005 law. When it began collecting the fee in April 2006, the state set the monthly amount at $30, but the law does allow the fee to be as high as $60 per month, as it is for Barbee.

As Barbee works to make his payments, Missouri lawmakers are advancing two measures that aim to reduce the number of people who are on probation and parole. But those measures could also trigger higher supervision fees for those who remain on probation and parole, even if their accounts are current with the state.

The measures pending before the Legislature would give non-violent parolees or probationers who have served at least two years under supervision an additional 30 days of credit toward their sentence for every month they go without a violation.

Separate versions of the legislation have passed the House and Senate and are moving through opposite legislative chambers.

Some probationers contacted by The Associated Press said the time reduction provision in the bills would discourage convicts from committing another offense . But others say the possibility of increased supervision fees triggered by the bills' changes could make it more difficult for them to successfully complete their sentences and stay out of jail.

Tim Coburn, who is working at a clothing factory in Bourbon, Mo., while serving five years of probation for a drug conviction, said increases of even $30 per month can be difficult for convicts who work for low hourly pay.

"A lot of us don't get choice jobs," said Coburn, 40. "If we're working for minimum wage and we have to pay our bills, that extra $30 could be a problem."

The cost estimates don't say exactly how many people would have to leave the probation and parole systems to trigger a fee hike. Nor do they say how high the fees might go.

The fee program currently allows waivers for convicts who have just gotten out of prison or who have an income under $10,210 per year for a single-person household. And according to a document on the corrections department's website, "the agency practice is to not recommend a revocation" of probation or parole if a person doesn't pay their fees.

But there are other possible consequences, including shock incarceration, which can last as long as four months. Barbee, who works full time at a Subway restaurant and holds two other side jobs, said even a shock term can be disruptive for convicts who have jobs at places with high turnover.

"There's no such thing as holding on to something when you go away for that long," he said. "That's a hell of a vacation from an employer's perspective."

Rep. Gary Fuhr, the sponsor of the House measure, said the Department of Corrections had not identified falling fee revenue as a major problem, because it could be offset by falling probationer counts.

"The goal in the long run is that there will be less people under supervision," said Fuhr, R-St. Louis County. "So there will be less services needed and that will cover the declining amount of money that's going in."

A corrections department spokesman said the agency does not comment on proposed legislation, even though the director, George Lombardi, testified in favor of Fuhr's bill at its first hearing.

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