I got call today on a very mundane subject which led me to do some creative thinking about a possible workaround for unaffordable probation and/or fine payments.
The caller was very upset–he had been on probation for some time but had lost his job and couldn't afford the probation payments. He couldn't find work and was getting very discouraged.
This is a very common complaint, as the fines and fees can really add up for a person on a long-term felony probation. Add to the high cost of probation the natural difficulty for any felony probationer in finding meaningful employment, and it is all too often the case a person will get behind in their payments, then stop paying altogether, then stop reporting altogether.
This common scenario always results in arrest and incarceration and very often also leads to revocation and prison time.
I didn't want this to happen to caller and I knew he couldn't afford to hire me or any other lawyer so I made a challenging suggestion to him. Here was my idea in a nutshell:
First, ask probation officer to reduce the $60.00 monthly payment to $25.00–this is specifically authorized under the statute.
Second, It is not unusual for a probationer to pay off rather than working off his community service hours; in other words, once the probationer has done 1/2 of his 200 hours, for example, he can pay off the remainder at $10/hour.
My suggestion was to get creative with the probation officer–offer to increase the community service hours to pay off the fine amount. Rather than decreasing the hours, increase the hours to decrease the dollars.
The reason why this should appeal to a probation officer is that the last thing they want to see is a probationer sitting around on his ass doing nothing. This apparent lack of effort or enthusiasm certainly suggests that the probationer doesn't want to be on probation, and might even cause concern to the probation officer that the person is likely to fall into drug use or criminal activity to combat the boredom and depression that goes along with inactivity. This is one of the goals of community service–get a person involved, keep him busy, hook him up with other kindhearted, service-minded people and instead of doing wrong they'll do right.
At worst, the probation officer will say "no." But even then the probation officer will know that the probationer is serious about staying on probation and willing to do whatever it takes to comply with the rules.
As it turns out the caller was already very active with a nonprofit organization and knew that he could get the director of the nonprofit to write him a glowing recommendation letter to take to his probation officer. When I suggested that he use what he already loved doing anyway to get himself out of what seemed like an intractable situation, the caller had a complete change in tone and attitude. He went from being totally discouraged to highly enthused.
The caller told me that I had given him some hope where before the call he had none. Now he had a plan and goals and believed he could succeed. Sometimes people ask me why I am a criminal defense attorney and this phone call is a perfect example of the answer to that question. What could be more rewarding than with one phone call giving a complete stranger hope and a plan and goals to accomplish?
If he calls again with an update I'll pass it on. In a down economy where is is hard for folks to pay all their bills, every little bit counts.