The Los Angeles County Probation Department suspended billing for more than 100,000 former probationers Thursday -- the day before the county had planned to start intercepting their tax returns -- after the public defender challenged the legality of many of the bills.
The suspension marked the second time in a month that the department backed down, at least temporarily, from its aggressive pursuit of debts. Two weeks ago, the department's head, Robert Taylor, called a moratorium on billing the parents and guardians of children held in juvenile camps and halls after The Times and children's advocates raised serious questions about who was being charged.
Adults on probation are billed for court fees, restitution and the cost of supervision. Last fall, as part of the effort to recover more money, probation officials mailed letters to 186,000 current and former probationers. Some of the cases dated back as far as 14 years. The letters notified recipients of outstanding debts ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars and threatened to intercept state tax returns if they did not pay within a month.
The first orders for tax intercepts were to be filed today to the state Franchise Tax Board.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Robert E. Kalunian said his office welcomed the suspension of billing.
"It gives us time to point out where we think there are errors," Kalunian said. "Some individuals do owe it, and they are legally obligated to pay, but there are a number that are not."
Taylor's staff plans to meet with counterparts from the public defender's office within the next month to address concerns about bills sent to former probationers, who make up about 60% of those billed. In the meantime, the department plans to continue billing those currently on probation.
"What is in dispute is that some of those inactive cases -- we may not have the authority to collect from some of those people," Taylor said.
He said he remains committed to recovering as much money owed to the probation system as possible, a task he said the department has done poorly in the past.
"We have a responsibility to the court to try to recover costs for all the services we provide," Taylor said.
Taylor's decision to hold off on some of the billing appeared to be sparked by a letter he received Wednesday from Public Defender Michael P. Judge.
In that letter, Judge said he believed former probationers who had already paid in full or had their debts waived by a judge had been mistakenly billed. Those bills, Judge noted, contained no breakdown of the charges.
"One would wonder what attempt has been made to verify that such obligations actually exist before a demand for payment has been sent," Judge said.
Judge also questioned the department's pursuit of restitution, arguing that the money is owed not to the department but to victims. He disagreed with the department's insistence that before individuals enter probation, they waive their right to a hearing about the amount of their debt and their ability to pay. And he questioned the legality of imposing tax intercepts to recoup probation debts without a court judgment.
Taylor said Thursday that his department based bills on recent court records and did not coerce probationers into signing waivers. He said he was confident that the department had the right to pursue old debts and said that once the "little tiny issues" are ironed out, he will continue the billing.
Among former probationers whose bills are in dispute is an unemployed schizophrenic woman under county supervision at a residential facility. After the woman was billed $1,625 last month, Suzanne Vega, her public defender, tried to contact the Probation Department staff. After repeated calls, Vega said, she was told they could not release information about the bill unless the woman appeared in person.
"It's very hard for me to dispute something when I don't know what they are alleging," Vega said.
Former probationer Micheal Doyle, 50, of Inglewood served 14 years in prison on drug charges before turning his life around. Since his release in 2004, he has worked with homeless veterans at nonprofit New Directions Inc. on the Westside. He earns $30,000 a year, lives in a $515 rented room and helps support his daughter and grandson.
Doyle, an Army veteran, said he went "into panic mode" when he received a $585 bill on Jan. 16. He said a judge had dismissed his probation costs in exchange for community service in 2004. On Monday, Doyle went to the Crenshaw area probation office to complain but said he was turned away.
"It's not right," Doyle said. "I know the overall picture: I should never have done the crime. But I did the crime, I did the time, I have the certificate on my wall from the judge showing I paid the money."
Ben Gales, a lawyer who serves on New Directions' board, said many of the veterans were charged for debts they had already paid and cannot afford to pay again.
"These are homeless vets who have very little money and very little means to handle what they're dealing with currently," Gales said. "It's just like balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable."
Los Angeles lawyer Anthony Solis said he has one client who already paid his $2,500 bill who is ready to pay it again to avoid a fight with probation officials.
"It feels like a total money grab," said Solis, noting that if others share his client's concerns, the Probation Department could get a windfall from people they should not have billed.