“Before they changed it to the county, I owed a thousand and something dollars,” Shaquilla L. said in the Rutherford County Department of Probation and Recovery Services waiting room on June 21, 2016. “Since they started the new one, I only owe five hundred and something. Now, where all the other fines went to, I have no idea, but when they changed over, [Lisa Reeder, the RCDPRS circuit court clerk] wrote my fee down and it was five hundred and something dollars. Now that’s a little more manageable. I just can’t pay it all at one time because I ain’t got it like that. I got kids.”
The transition from Providence Community Corrections to RCDPRS resulted in both Shaquilla and myself noticing the total costs of our charges had decreased after RCDPRS took over probation supervision on April 1, 2016.
Tiarra Smith, my probation officer at both PCC and RCDPRS, showed me on April 12, 2016, that once PCC left town at the end of March, the remaining unpaid PCC supervision fees left over from my 2013 DUI case were deducted from the total court costs and probation costs of that case. The receipt she used to explain that on ended up looking like a game of Chutes and Ladders, so I asked Lisa Reeder, RCDPRS’ in-house Circuit Court clerk, about it later that week.
Reeder explained that PCC was sending money back to the Circuit Court clerk’s office to apply to people’s accounts. That’s why my outstanding case total was reduced. She also said that, in some probationer’s cases, the amount PCC sends back could exceed the amount a probationer owes the county, resulting in the probationer receiving a check in the mail for the overage. She advised me to talk to my probation officer and make sure my current address is in their computer system, should a refund be forthcoming.
I asked her again on July 28 if PCC had sent any more money to apply to probationer’s accounts.
“Those checks came in, like, April 15,” she replied, “and by the end of May, I had all the checks and all the money that they have sent us put in [the computer system]. Some people have said they were reimbursing the people directly, but as far as court payments came, I got them done as quickly as I could. They were done before the end of May. . . . If you were owed a reimbursement through PCC, they would have sent you one from PCC.”
In my particular case, Tiarra Smith was right about the money deducted from the total amount I owed PCC and Rutherford County for just the DUI charge. The remaining money PCC would have collected from me through their monthly $45 supervision fees—a total of $545 for an 11-month-and-29-day supervised probationary period plus the $5 TN Probation Council fee, paid in $1 increments every two months—was waived. PCC, however, did not refund any money to my account or reapply fees already collected to any of my court costs, as Reeder stated. From February of 2014, when my DUI probationary period began, until the end of June 2014, when I no longer reported to PCC, I had paid five months’ worth of probation fees plus $2 of the TN Probation Council fees, totaling $227. The remaining $318 of the $545 PCC fees that I still owed on PCC and RCDPRS receipts was waived, and, because of that waiver, it appeared my costs and fines had been reduced on the RCDPRS receipt Tiarra Smith showed me. The same happened to Shaquilla’s total, but she was reporting as requested through the quick transition from PCC to RCDPRS with no lapse in time of not reporting, so it’s evident any outstanding PCC fines were waived from all open cases once PCC’s contract ended with the county.
Unfortunately, those fees are actually still being collected directly by the Rutherford County Circuit Court. It’s just not on paper the same way at RCDPRS.
The difference between how RCDPRS does it and how PCC did it is as follows: instead of applying all of the combined supervision fees for a probationary period to the total court costs at the beginning of the probationary period—with probationers watching that number being whittled down on the monthly receipts as they pay, as PCC did—RCDPRS applies the $45 monthly supervision fee as probationers go along, showing an increased cost after a payment is applied. For example, if a probationer’s court costs were $500 total at the beginning of their probationary period, and they pay $30 against that charge the first month, their new total the following month is $515, reflecting a $30 payment plus a new $45 charge. Reeder or Rob, the Circuit Court clerks who calculate all of the probationer’s fees, fines and payments at the front desk will hand the probationer a non-itemized receipt on white paper printed out from the office calculator on which they crunch numbers, showing the increased amount. At PCC, the initial $500 court cost of the probationer’s turns into $1,040 the first time they show up for probation, reflecting the total cost of the monthly supervision fees calculated up front, and the amount owed goes down every time they pay.
For example, in my account with RCDPRS this year, I was at an $0 balance owed by April 2016. When the punishments and court costs for my violation of probation (VOP) charge for the 2013 DUI charge were applied to RCDPRS and Circuit Court clerks office’s filing system after the VOP charge was settled in court on July 18, 2016, my $0 balance went up $708, according to Rob M., who helps Reeder with the workload at the RCDPRS Circuit Court Clerk’s desk, and who punched out those numbers on his calculator on Sept. 20. So, of the VOP court costs added ($708), I’ve paid $439 towards that thus far. Of that, $225 went to the RCDPRS supervision fees (April–September) that are added on to the court costs each month instead of all of them added up front as PCC did, which left only $214 of the $439 I paid to be applied to the $708 total. After reporting and paying a supervision fee on Sept. 20, 2016, I left with a little white calculator receipt that said I owe RCDPRS $494, which freshly includes the new supervision fee that had just been added on Sept. 18, the next monthly anniversary of my July 18 court date, after paying $439 towards a $708 tab. If you didn’t follow all that, and I can understand why not, the upshot is this: under this system, the probationer is forever behind the eight-ball, unable to make more than minimal progress paying the bill.
“The sooner you pay this off, the more money you’ll save from your $45 supervision fee,” is how Tiarra Smith put it when I reported in on Aug. 16.
Pertaining to Reeder’s statement that a PCC refund may exceed a probationer’s balance due (though it did not apply to my case), then any excess money for the probationers could have already been mailed to the probationer’s last recorded address in the RCDPRS computer system—or, as the saying goes, the check is in the mail.
While some of the changes between PCC and RCDPRS are posted on the walls and on the desks of the probation managers, probationers keeping track of their money through RCDPRS can be understandably perplexed with the other changes. So, who is responsible for the changes that have been made in these confusing times? Who seems to be in charge?
According to Tiarra Smith, who was hired into RCDPRS from PCC, some of the probation officers take it upon themselves to supply help to probationers when they request it. Also, a few times while I’ve been paying my fines and fees at the front desk, Lisa Reeder had to stop to message, call or walk back to my probation officer Tiarra Smith’s back office to check if an action Reeder was about to take involving my fines, fees and payments was a correct action to take.
Once, on April 14, 2016, Reeder had to double check with Smith about some of the court cost totals I owed via an instant messenger used between employees of RCDPRS. Again, on June 7, 2016, Reeder went back to Smith to clarify how many months I was to be charged the $45 probation fee. (I poked my head back into the 309 W. Main St. probation building to assess my debt and square up with the county on April 12 and April 14, 2016. Apparently the $45 monthly supervision fee started again right then, though I was not instructed to report back to probation by the Rutherford County District Attorney’s Office until the middle of May. This is when Smith instructed Reeder to charge me an extra $45 for showing up in April—not for a probation appointment but to pay my debt off in full that month). Earlier this year, on Aug. 11, 2016, Reeder required Smith’s assistance clarifying to which docket number my probation fees should be applied (each docket number representing a separate legal action related to a court case). Right before phoning back to Smith’s office, she said, “I don’t make those calls.”
The only certain communication I’ve witnessed between the Circuit Court clerks and the probation managers of RCDPRS involve the money, and that occurs when Reeder notifies the probation managers when a probationer makes a payment and when an ex-PCC employee instructs Reeder on how to operate the Circuit Court clerk’s side of the business, the latter being a concern of the County Commission during the Feb. 22, 2016, Public Safety Committee meeting at the Historic Courthouse on the square when Mayor Ernest Burgess and the County Commissioners discussed opening RCDPRS.
“Mayor [Ernest] Burgess advised [that the county] will separate the money issues as the Circuit Court Clerk will collect the court costs, fees and fines [and] thought it wise to have a credible third party help for three months and recommended a nonprofit organization such as Mid-Cumberland Community Corrections Program as they currently have programs in other counties,” the minutes of the Public Safety Committee meeting state on the county’s website, rutherfordcountytn.gov.
Furthermore, according to those minutes, “Commissioner [David] Nipper advised he was not comfortable picking up PCC employees and felt all ties should be cut with them,” to which “Mayor Burgess [added] some PCC employees have been sued in the lawsuit [against PCC and Rutherford County].”