9 Investigates unpaid probation costs

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Beneath the barbed wire of the Orange County Jail, probationers trickle in and out of the administration building where they are supposed to pay the $50 per month it costs to supervise them during probation. 

But 9 Investigates discovered many are not paying the fee.

“Has it been hard for you to keep up with payments?” asked investigative reporter George Spencer.

 “Yes, yes,” said Tammy Soto, who admits to falling behind at times. 

Like many on probation, Soto said the stigma of her criminal charge has reduced once-strong earnings.

“I make really good money, but because of my background, they don't even consider,” said Soto.

Between the fall of 2009 and the spring of 2011, 43 percent of probation supervision costs were not repaid.

That’s almost $145,000 that Orange County taxpayers covered instead. And over the years, that unpaid total would easily reach the millions.

“When the process isn't complete and the rules and polices aren't followed, it's our tax dollars that pay the bill,” said Mike Cantone, of CountyWatch.

The County’s primary way of trying to collect cash had been very basic, simply sending the offender a letter requesting payment of an overdue balance. But for years, auditors found the department did not consistently use other basic measures like collections agencies, reporting to credit bureaus, wage garnishment or driver license suspension.

“Such small, basic, simple steps could've been taken to save hundreds of thousands of dollars from our tax base,” said Cantone.

The Corrections Department points out the review is just a moment-in-time snapshot of collections, but it has been making changes.

“The auditor said our measures were adequate and we concurred with their findings and recommendations. We have been implementing the auditor’s recommendations, as appropriate, along with additional measures of our own,” said spokesman Allen Moore. 

Another current probationer, Emmanuel Castro, said the county will always fight a losing battle among probationers for whom regular work is a challenge.

“Trying to keep a job or trying to even get a job in the first place and having to pay all these fees, I'm pretty sure it's a struggle,” said Castro.

For broad comparison, Seminole County’s Probation Unit told 9 Investigates its overall collections are at 77 percent and cost of supervision fees are the biggest chunk of that income. 

Orange County Corrections refused an on-camera interview, but said its probation unit meets or exceeds all national standards.