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Navigating the Rutherford County Criminal Justice System – Part 2: Inside Rutherford County Department of Probation and Recovery Services

“I know people that have been on probation—doing one crime—on probation for several years, from one thing they did years ago, and that is crazy. That’s crazy,” said Shaquilla L., a probationer in the Rutherford County Department of Probation and Recovery Services (RCDPRS) waiting room on the afternoon of June 21, 2016, almost three months after the new county-run probation department began its operations.

“I want to know,” Shaquilla continued, “other than themselves, how [is the probation department] helping or benefiting anything or anyone else in any type of way? In my opinion, I feel like they should, if anything . . . be here to prevent us from doing whatever happened again, or to, you know, help us become better.”

Though the profit-producing business model of Providence Community Corrections (PCC) became the active template used by PCC’s replacement, RCDPRS, which does make a profit for Rutherford County off of the supervised probation fees their probationers (folks on probation) have to pay, there have been some protocol adjustments and slight shifts of responsibility within RCDPRS, as compared to PCC.

According to Tiarra Smith, who has worked for both PCC and RCDPRS, some of the RCDPRS probation officers have taken it upon themselves to supply educational opportunities. Information is now posted on the waiting room’s bulletin board showing how to acquire a GED and information from businesses hiring in the Rutherford County area that they post as probationers bring that information in to them. RCDPRS even held a job fair July 29 and Aug. 3, and now holds job interviews in their building for companies such as Kasai in Smyrna and Sumitomo in La Vergne every Wednesday from 9–1 for probationers seeking employment, according to the sign in the RCDPRS waiting room, which also states “misdemeanors are okay, and some felonies.”

On top of that, because many of the misdemeanor cases running through RCDPRS are alcohol and drug-related, Smith will personally hand out a list of alcohol and drug treatment locations to the probationer upon request, specifying facilities with and without indigent services (rehabilitation treatment for people with low income), though none of the facilities are in Rutherford County. The notion to supply all of this information is not requested of the participating probation officers by the courts or anyone else.

There is no more full waiting room. RCDPRS probation officers removed the clip boards that were used by probationers to sign in, unscheduled, to report to their probation officers a few weeks after RCDPRS took over. The Wild West rules of unscheduled PCC reportings on Tuesdays have been replaced by appointment books kept by the individual probation officers for different days of the week. Probationers may enjoy the comforts of a non-crowded RCDPRS waiting room as long as they don’t trim their toenails while they wait, as posted signs on the backs of the waiting room chairs caution them.

Probation officers now also provide their probationers with little white cards containing case information that they can present to the appropriate probation officer during each scheduled visit, offering ease of access to the case information in the RCDPRS computer system.

Probationers can present the little white cards to the Circuit Court clerk’s new payment counter in the front of the building for the clerk’s ease of access into the RCDPRS computer system, too.

In this new shift of responsibility from the probation officers to the county clerks, probationers may now pay at the new Circuit Court clerk’s desk. This is located next to the entrance and is managed by county circuit court clerk Lisa Reeder, who took the job on April 1, when RCDPRS took over for PCC. Instead of probationers giving their money orders directly to their probation officers in the back offices, as was the  custom at PCC, they now can make their money orders payable to “Circuit Court Clerks,” and hand them to Reeder or her assistant, Rob, anytime the probationer wants to when RCDPRS is open and within the timeframe of their court-ordered one-month, six-month, or 11 months and 29 days probationary period, be it on their report date or not.

Probationers have to be scheduled to report with their probation officers, but not to show up and make a payment.

It used to take up to two months to receive and file payment receipts from PCC probation officers, according to Beth Becker, one of the courthouse clerks in room 201 at the Judicial Building on the square. But since Reeder gets the money orders directly to the General Sessions Clerk’s office every day, and since PCC’s privately owned filing system was replaced with the county’s currently used New Dawn filing system, proper receipt of probationer’s payments is now in real time. As a result, payments can be seen, physically and on the clerk’s computer screens, the same day that Reeder or Rob receive the money order.

According to County Commissioner Robert Stevens (as reported by journalist Scott Broden), the New Dawn computer filing system shared by the General Sessions Clerk’s office and RCDPRS, and used by Reeder and Rob to file probationer’s payments of court costs and county profit probation fees, is leftover technology given to the county, along with $500,000, by New Dawn Technologies (one of three companies merged together to form Journal Technologies). That was the settlement in another lawsuit Rutherford County was involved in against New Dawn and JTI in August 2015 because the New Dawn software was deemed faulty by the county courthouse clerk’s office after a state audit by the Tennessee Department of Revenue in 2015 revealed a lack of payment of county litigation taxes from the Rutherford County Clerk’s office.

At a Rutherford County Commission meeting on Aug. 18, 2016, it was concluded by Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess that the General Sessions court will replace New Dawn with an improved, more efficient filing system, TnCIS (Tennessee Courts Information System) on June 30, 2017. The matter of improving the system was initiated by the efforts of Rutherford County Clerk Melissa Harrell, who oversees the finances of RCDPRS, as well as actions of the county commissioners.

“[TnCIS] is the same system used in Chancery [Court]. It is not exactly up to date with technology, but it is better than what [General Sessions courts] have,” said a Rutherford County courthouse clerk who prefers to remain unnamed.

Chancery Court has been running TnCis since 2010.

Until June 30, 2017, people who are court-ordered to be on probation at RCDPRS because they can’t afford to pay Rutherford County court costs, ranging from $400 to $1000 per misdemeanor case, in full on the day of their court date, will be paying Rutherford County a profit that goes into the county’s general fund, according to Rutherford County Clerk Melissa Harrell. The county makes this profit by charging the $45-per-month probation fee per probationer in their own county-run probation department. This $45 fee can be taken for up to 12 months, totaling $540, or up to 120% of the initial court costs before probation and is taken first and foremost by RPDPRS from probationer’s payments they are obligated to give to RCDPRS every month once on probation. Any money exceeding the monthly $45 supervision cost is applied to their initial court costs before the next month’s $45 fee is applied again. Those monthly fees collected from every probationer in the county are placed into the county’s general fund (the county’s pocket) after litigation taxes are taken out, but those taxes were shown to be outstanding and unpaid by a 2015 Tennessee state audit of the previous fiscal year. New Dawn, the clerical computer software bought by the county to help the County Clerk’s office organize and file all of their paperwork was blamed for not working properly, which caused the lack of payment of their taxes to occur.

Rutherford County, which still uses the faulty New Dawn software since receiving a $500,000 refund (half of what was spent on New Dawn clerical technology) after a lawsuit against that company was settled, is now collecting its money through RCDPRS’ use of New Dawn. TnCIS, the new and improved software that the mayor said would not replace New Dawn for nearly a year, has already been in use for six years by the Rutherford County Chancery Court, another court within the Rutherford County court system, just a couple of floors above the General Sessions court rooms and their Circuit Court Clerk’s office.

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