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Arkansas’ parole and probation agency has quietly resumed collecting a $35 monthly supervision fee from some offenders for May, even as much of the state’s economy remains shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Division of Community Correction, which oversees more than 60,000 offenders out on supervised release from prison, waived the collection of its monthly fees in April, as the number of infectious cases spread around the state, forcing many businesses to close and lay off workers.

The blanket waiver of fees has not been extended into May, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette learned from emails obtained via a public records request.

“We will review cases on a case by case basis going forward,” Community Correction Director Jerry Bradshaw told the head of the state’s Public Defender Commission in an email last week. “Loss of employment due to COVID-19 will be an acceptable reason for waiver of fees.”

The change comes as Gov. Asa Hutchinson and state health officials look to an early May start to allowing some businesses to reopen. Gyms, athletic clubs, as well as personal services businesses such as hair and nail salons can begin opening this week, the governor said, while restaurants can begin serving limited-capacity dining rooms on May 11.

Still, other businesses, including movie theaters and larger event venues, will remain closed for now.

The economic impact of the virus forced 170,000 Arkansans to file for unemployment insurance, according to the state Division of Workforce Services on April 24. The unemployment rate for March was 4.8% and is expected to end up nearly double that.

Dina Tyler, a now-retired spokeswoman for the state’s corrections agencies, said in an email last week that the decision to resume collecting fees was made because the agency believes more offenders will return to work in May.

“The cost of supervising those offenders has not decreased,” she added.

No offenders face having their release revoked solely because they didn’t pay the fees, Tyler said, adding that the nonpayment policy predates the pandemic.

Offenders who owe monthly fees to the Division of Community Correction are reminded of those costs through automated text messages sent to their phones.

Adding to the confusion over whether their fees are waived, some offenders said, was that they continued to receive the automated messages reminding them that payments were due in April.

Several offenders and their attorneys who spoke to the Democrat-Gazette said that they were unaware of the department’s decision to resume collecting fees in May.

One parolee told the Democrat-Gazette that last month he received a text reminder that he owed the usual $35, and he did not pay because he had been told the fee was waived. On Saturday, he received another automated text from his parole officer which stated that he now owed $70 for both months.

The parolee, who has been out of prison almost a year, requested anonymity out of concern that speaking to a reporter could affect his parole status.

Starting last month, he said, his work hours at a fast-food restaurant were cut in half because the only business being done was at the drive-thru window. While he believed his work hours would pick up in May, he said he was not sure when exactly his bosses would choose to resume full service.

In the meantime, he said, his biweekly paychecks have fallen below $320. On that salary, he said he could probably afford to pay his fees for a single month, though he doubted whether he could afford two.

“It’ll be hard with bills and everything,” he said. “I might not be able to [pay $70], to be completely honest.”

Community Correction did continue to send automated payment reminders to offenders in April, Tyler confirmed, though offenders will not be required to pay fees for the month. In addition, she said, the agency has been keeping up with offenders who already had outstanding fees and is working with those who lost their jobs.

Several attorneys who represent those on parole and probation said the decision to resume fee collections could be a strain on offenders who are trying to keep up with terms of their release.

“We’re talking about poor people to begin with,” said Arkansas Public Defender Coordinator Gregg Parrish, who emailed Community Correction officials last week to inquire about the policy change.

The response that Parrish received from Bradshaw still left him with lingering questions, Parrish said, such as whether the monthly fee will be waived for an offender who is still going to work, but whose income has been cut because a spouse lost their job.

“I’m thankful that consideration is being given to waiving fees, although I have not seen specific guidelines,” Parrish said.

Community Correction policy states that the decision to waive supervision fees is up to the area manager in the case of parolees, while a judge must approve the decision to waive fees for someone on probation.

“Fines, court costs or any other court ordered obligations may not be waived or converted to community service unless ordered by a judge,” the policy states.

Tyler said Community Correction would revert to its “long-standing process” in determining fee waivers, which includes consideration of their earnings and other obligations. Offenders who disagree with a decision to deny their waiver request can appeal, she said.

While overdue fees are rarely used as a reason to revoke the release of offenders or have them put in jail as a sanction, attorneys said that not paying can still affect offenders when they are being considered for lighter supervision status, or if they get in trouble for other reasons.

“It’s always included as a violation when something else is going on,” said Bill James, a defense attorney based in Little Rock.

He said he does not believe that judges give as much consideration to overdue fees as other issues — such as failing to check in with a parole officer or being charged with a new crime — but added, “It doesn’t help if you’re not paying your fees.”

The fees also contribute substantially to the Division of Community Correction’s budget and operations. The agency collected an average of $1.1 million each month from offenders last year, according to agency records.

The parole and probation agency has already had its budget cut by $6.3 million, to $87.2 million, this fiscal year as state government grapples with lower revenue caused by the economic slowdown.

Tyler said the agency does not have an estimate for how much it hopes to collect in May, though she said there is an expectation that fewer fees will be collected because of unemployment and underemployment.

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